Heaven closed to non-believers

Times Column 22/01/05

Horse racing is the sport of kings, football the beautiful game.  In Australia and New Zealand, in a phrase less often heard over here, rugby is ‘the game they play in heaven’.  It’s also the game they play in Chile and Pakistan, and the best way to keep up to speed with rugby in the Moroccan championship, or the Nigerian national squad, is via heavensgame.com.

This non-profit making website was set up in 2002 with the brilliantly simple idea, not yet on the IRB’s agenda, of treating each rugby nation equally.  A 6-Nations clash between England and France was deemed no more important than a review of the second round of the Spanish Cup.  Each story as it arrived became the main story until the next one came along.

Heavensgame soon had a global audience, attracting over 1.7 million people in 2004.  News from Guam and Slovenia was only the half of it.  There were interviews with the Danish Ladies coach and a Brazilian referee and the Kazakhstan left wing.  The site also offered a unique service for putting players in touch with suitable clubs wherever in the world they intended to travel.  For props with itchy feet or wanderlusting wingers, of whatever standard, rugby and heavensgame.com provided a passport to instant community and friendship.

The views, features and information were provided by a network of volunteer contributors, but co-ordinated in his spare time by one man, 32-year-old Jeremy Beynon.  In a previous life, Beynon had been a full-back from Llanmorlais on the Gower.  He played for Penclawdd, Vardre, and finally Bonymaen, before re-imagining himself in his late-twenties as a systems contractor on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

It was Beynon’s brief stint with the Beacon Hill club in Boston that gave him a ‘real insight into the passion that exists for rugby outside the established rugby countries.  Each Saturday morning, the whole club (3 teams) would turn up to mark out a rugby pitch, put up the goal posts, and generally perform all the other tasks I used to take for granted in Wales.’

Beynon takes his evangelism seriously. As heavensgame grew in popularity, he bartered advertising space against kit for developing rugby nations.  The referees in Finland, Hungary and Bosnia are now all wearing jerseys provided via the site.  The Bosnian RFU and Mexico will be receiving more kit soon. 

This is the kind of game they’d truly play in heaven: not the grasping and repetitive global telesport of the Tri-Nations and the IRB, but inclusive, diverse, and based on the rich interchange of like-minded people with a shared and consuming passion.  Unfortunately, Beynon’s generous impartiality was about to land him in trouble.

By combining the three words heaven, USA and Israel (rugby in both countries was covered by heavensgame) some limited-interest hackers arrived at a truly dim-witted conclusion.  They attacked heavensgame.com, destroyed the database and back up, and splashed out a spew of spam e-mail about Iraq, Afghanistan and the tribal injustices of the Israeli state.  Important though these issues are, they may well be absent even from religious ideas of heaven, let alone a rugby one.  The last attack was on Christmas day, when every feature and story on the site was lost. 

Down-hearted but not defeated, Beynon has re-launched with more secure software.  It will take a little while for the glory of heavensgame.com to re-accumulate, the sheer variety and charm of the information and people his site has mined from the lesser-known corners of the rugby world.  The new era begins in earnest from February, with opinions already scheduled from the the captain of the Arabian Gulf national team, a capped member of the Malta squad, and the Tongan Rugby Union CEO.

As for that original quote, which may have caused offence to the hackers.  It doesn’t promise everyone a game of rugby in heaven.  Only ‘they’ will be playing, the people who actually get there.  The saintly Jeremy Beynon can therefore look forward to a runabout with Inga Tuigemala and Jason Robinson.  Everyone else will just have to wait, and hope, whatever their politics or religion, that rugby’s heaven is as tolerant and welcoming as its version of earth.