Friday, 29 April 2016

Glasgow Spectator Sports Part 4. Rugby

Glasgow Spectator Sports. More Than Just Football?

I spend most of my time as a spectator of sport in Glasgow at football matches, more specifically at Firhill watching Partick Thistle. With my team being out of action for a few weekends in April, I have been looking for other sporting offerings in the city in the past few weeks. I took my children along to plenty of other sporting spectacles during the Commonwealth Games last year, but we never really stuck with any of them. Although my children go to swimming clubs, athletics and badminton clubs we rarely go to these sports as spectators. So in recent weeks we made the effort to catch some sports we don't usually bother with. We have enjoyed some sporting imports, with Braehead Clan ice hockey matches and Glasgow Rocks basketball. We took in some nostalgia soaked sports with speedway at Glasgow Tigers and greyhound racing at Shawfield Stadium. But before coming back to football in the city, we are going to give rugby a go too.

Glasgow Rugby 

Rugby and football in Scotland have never really fought over the same audience, they generally draw a different crowd. Football has always been where my interest lies and, like many people, unless the Scotland national team are beating England, my interest in rugby wanes.

I have over the years been to various birthday parties and funerals held in rugby club halls, but it is fair to say I am not a big follower of the rugby. I will freely admit that some of this is prejudice on my part. I didn't know anyone who played rugby until I went to university, and the people that I met there who played the sport were, as a general rule, complete dicks (with the odd exception from Blantyre). I am sure that a large part of my lack of interest in rugby is simple inverted snobbery. It may be fairly normal in parts of Ayrshire and the Borders for people to play rugby, but beyond that in Scotland it really is played in the private schools of the land. Nobody taught us rugby on the red blaes pitches of my secondary school. When Rory Hughes was recently capped for Scotland against Italy, it was newsworthy. A Castlemilk boy, who went to a state school in Glasgow had made his way to the national squad. The exception rather than the rule. When you look at the "notable people" from Castlemilk on its Wikipedia page there are listed 15 footballers, 3 actors, 1 musician, 1 policeman and 1 rugby player.

There have been efforts on behalf of the sport to tackle this and my children have all been given taster sessions in rugby at primary school. Although my kids weren't persuaded by these sessions, I know that one or two of their classmates went on to invest in a set of gum shields and joined local clubs, so not a completely wasted effort.

Although I watch the Scotland team play on TV at times, another thing which makes it hard for me to get right into rugby is the endless tweaking of the rules of the game. If the referees didn't have a mic attached to explain each decision we would all be at a loss. The commentators flap about, trying to spot the apparent infringement, until the voice comes through their headphones telling them what apparently happened. Even then, the old tradition in rugby of never disagreeing with the referee and respecting his decision has gone out the window. This was nowhere more obvious than when referee Craig Joubert awarded a match-winning penalty to Australia in the recent World Cup, eliminating Scotland in the process and then sprinting off the pitch to universal condemnation (except in Australia I suppose).

Whilst the world's first international rugby match was played in Edinburgh, at Raeburn Place in 1871, between Scotland and England, Glasgow hosted the world's first football international in 1872 at Hamilton Crescent, Partick in Glasgow. This is where these sports have had their base in Scotland ever since, with the capital being home to the national rugby team at Murrayfield and Hampden Park in Glasgow the spiritual home of Scotland's football. Whilst Glasgow Warriors have met increased success on the pitch and regularly sell out their home matches, you are talking about 4-5000 people watching, crowds not far off Partick Thistle's numbers on a good day, whilst Celtic and Rangers in the city can both have home crowds ten-times this number.

I have watched rugby before. I've taken my kids along to watch the Rugby Sevens at Scotstoun on occasion, and the quick fire games were quite entertaining. Rugby Sevens was a big crowd-puller at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in part because the games were held at Ibrox Stadium and there were plenty of tickets on offer. I have been to see the Scotland rugby team play in Edinburgh, when I won tickets to a match somehow. It was all very jolly, if a bit lacking in any feeling of competitive rivalry in the stands. Rival fans mixed together in the crowd, gamely cheering on their teams. It had none of the frisson of excitement that sitting just along from the Polish fans at Hampden had, when I was recently watching Scotland in a football World Cup qualifier.

Twickenham grass being prepared
I have also visited the home of English rugby at Twickenham, although I was at a training course at the stadium rather than to watch rugby. On display in their museum there was the Calcutta Cup, which Scotland and England play for annually in their head to head match. The fact that it is named after a city in India from the time of the British Empire, sculpted with an elephant and cobras and is made of melted down silver rupees seems like a fitting metaphor for the history of rugby.

The Calcutta Cup

Glasgow Hawks and Glasgow Hills

Club rugby in Scotland has undergone a lot of change since the 1990s, with the arrival of the professional era in a sport which once prided itself on its amateur ethos. The days of the Scottish newsreader working their way through the rugby scores after they had finished with the football results on a Saturday night, with names such as Boroughmuir, Melrose, Kelso and Glasgow Academicals, are long gone. There are now two professional teams in Scotland, the Glasgow Warriors and the imaginatively named Edinburgh Rugby. They play in the Guinness Pro12 League of which Glasgow were champions in 2014-15. By ending up in the top 4 places in the league again this year (2015-16) Glasgow are guaranteed a place in the end of season play-offs. This also ensures them a berth in next year's European Rugby Champions Cup.

The extensive amateur rugby league system in Scotland has about 8 tiers with over 150 teams involved and promotion and relegation possible between divisions. This becomes regional in the lower orders. Although the top league is dominated numerically by Borders' teams, Glasgow is represented in the Scottish Premier Division by Glasgow Hawks, based at the pitches at Anniesland Cross ("Old Anniesland"). Old Anniesland was first set out as sports fields by Glasgow Academy school in 1883, and used by them until 1902. When they bought farmland next door in 1902 to create "New Anniesland", Glasgow University took over Old Anniesland for 10 years. In 1919 Glasgow High School bought Old Anniesland and built a new clubhouse here in 1924, a building which still stands. Since Glasgow High, the school, upped sticks from the city centre in 1976 their school buildings have stood here also. Glasgow High rugby team merged with Kelvinside Academy in 1982 to form Glasgow HK. Then with the re-organisation of rugby across the country in 1995 they merged with New Anniesland's Glasgow Academical team (or Accies) to form Glasgow Hawks. Initially their name was the result of Accies, HK and the West of Scotland club coming together, but the latter team decided to keep going in their own right. West of Scotland Rugby, formed in 1865, now play out at Milngavie.

Colours of West of Scotland Football Club
Originating in Partick at Hamilton Crescent, West of Scotland have played in red and yellow since 1871. Their colours were borrowed, and retained, by their footballing Partick neighbours, Partick Thistle Football Club in the 1930s.

Glasgow Hawks still are based now at Old Anniesland. Their season in the top tier of Scottish amateur rugby runs from August through to March and has just come to an end with Glasgow Hawks finishing a safe 6th. Ayr Rugby Club topped the league, being ahead by a clear 12 points at the end of the season. However as the league has adopted the play-off system to decide the champions, they lost out to Edinburgh's Heriots in the final. To me that must feel very unjust to Ayr followers and I am not really a fan of play-offs deciding championships. Cup competitions I get, but a whole season decided in one game just seems unfair.

Also nearby are Hillhead-Jordanhill Rugby Club, based at Hillhead Sports Club in Hughenden. "The Hills" play in the BT National League Division 2, two tiers below the Premiership. With Hamilton champions of the league this year, the Hills have just avoided relegation finishing 10th in a 12 team league. Hillhead Sports Club was was initially home to Hillhead High School Former Pupils' Rugby Football Club. The opening on the new, reinforced concrete stand here at Hillhead Sports Club in 1934 was marked by a match between Hillhead Former Pupils and Glasgow Academicals.

Newspaper report of the Hillhead FP vs Accies rugby match, September 1934
The old stand has been demolished now and much of the peripheral land sold off to housing developers. Some put the need for this land sale down to losses accrued by Hughenden being the first home to Glasgow's new professional club, Glasgow Warriors, from 1999. Six years later Warriors had moved on to Firhill Stadium, to churn up the football pitch there instead. Whatever the reason, Hillhead Sports Club, like many clubs before them, have had to sell off some of their most valuable asset, their land, to keep functioning.

Club building at Hillhead Sports Club, Glasgow
Rugby cliché, Hughenden
I wandered round one Sunday afternoon in April to have a look around Hillhead Sports Club, not realising that it has quite a nice bar/cafe open to the public in the club building. There was also a BT Women's Premier League play-off match on, between the top two teams in the league, Hills Women's team and the Murrayfield Wanderers. It was a hard fought game, with players limping off periodically with injuries, but the Murrayfield Wanderers clearly had the upper hand and ran out 29-15 winners. As someone who usually watches football, the players all calling the referee "sir" when speaking to him just souned fake and odd, adults acting like obedient school pupils. Even when he was heckled from the small crowd, to correct some of his misinterpretations of rugby's labyrinthine rules, he was was shouted at in this same way. "That penalty should be taken from where the ball was kicked, sir!" they cried, instead of ending it with the more natural "-ya fuckin' clown!".

Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Hills players. April 2016
Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Hills vs Murrayfield Wanderers. April 2016
Club rugby obviously has its ardent followers, but all the televised glamour of rugby is with the professional game now. I pitched up to watch Glasgow Warriors in their last home game of the league season, with the play-offs just around the corner. They were playing Italian team Zebre, second bottom of the table. With Glasgow already guaranteed a play-off place, there was still something to play for with league position determining home and away ties in the play-off semi-final.
Glasgow Warriors have been based at Scotstoun Stadium since the 2012/13 season. When I lived in Knightswood this was just "Scotstoun Showgrounds" and had been since it was laid out as such by the Glasgow Agricultural Society in 1860, when it apparently staged livestock shows. Monthly Clydesdale horse shows were held here until the 1950s but sport had arrived at the showgrounds around 1902 when it became Hillhead High School's Former Pupils Club. In 1915 an ash running track was laid and 5 years later a stand backing onto Danes Drive was built. Scotstoun Stadium has been home to Victoria Park Amateur Athletics Club since it was formed in the 1930s. Here they are, below, winning the 1954 Edinburgh to Glasgow relay race.

In 1996 the running track was replaced with a modern eight lane synthetic track. With funding of £18 million, much of it from the city council and Sport Scotland, to upgrade it as a modern facility open to the local public, the stand was re-fitted with a fitness suite and indoor 100m warm up track. A new stand was built on the opposite side of the track and the whole facility re-opened in 2010. Initially just a training base whilst their matches were at Firhill, Glasgow Warriors now play their home matches here, and as a result competitive athletics can take place less often in the stadium. It is still home to the athletics club and the hundreds of children that take part in their junior clubs (including my daughter), but rugby is certainly squeezing them out.

Facilities at Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow
This season the rugby pitch often proved to be unplayable after a wet Scottish winter and Glasgow Warriors were forced to play several of their home games on Kilmarnock Football Club's artificial pitch. Little comment was made on the irony of Kilmarnock's Rugby Park having a more successful rugby team than football team playing here for the first time in its 115 year history. To prevent this problem in future seasons Warriors have planned to have a 3G pitch put into what is ostensibly a community facility which they rent. This has caused some controversy as they are already elbowing out the athletics tenants in other ways and such a pitch would prove unsuitable to javelin and hammer-throwing events at this multi-sports site. After an initial stand-off it seems a compromise deal if being put together.

On a recent visit to Scotstoun Stadium at dusk
I have only seen Warriors play once before, when they were based at Firhill. That was really just to enjoy the novelty of sitting in the Jackie Husband stand around about my usual seat at that time, but with a pint of warm lager in my hand. That match was a close game and the people on either side of me were endlessly turning to me to ask whether I thought that was a ruck or a maul and suchlike. I seemed to make the correct contemplative, sucking in through my teeth noises to bluff them into thinking I had an opinion on the matter.

Glasgow Warriors vs Zebre. Sold out.
Tonight's match between Warriors and Zebre proved to be a sell out, with all four stands full and standing tickets released too, with people penned behind the corner flags. That brought the crowd up to about 6000. For someone used to the footballing regulations of no standing being allowed and no alcohol at the ground, it is impossible to see why these rules are still deemed necessary for one group of sports fans (football) but not for others.

Scotstoun Stadium, Glasgow
Bar and catering facilities at Scotstoun
The catering facilities at the rugby tonight were far superior to anything you get at football with a choice of drinks, and different stalls giving a range of eating options. Despite bars being sited all around the ground on a Friday night, more people were interested in getting food as you can see from the respective queues above.

Glasgow had a dip in form in the middle of the season this year, but came into this match on a run of eight consecutive victories. It is a strange aspect of club rugby, that during international competitions such as the Rugby World Cup held earlier this year, club games carry on but without the best players being available. This either works as a handicap for some teams or forces them to recruit a bigger squad to give them flexibility. Most other sports suspend other competitions for internationals, maintaining the integrity of the league as a contest.

Despite a sluggish start Glasgow soon got the points ticking over and by half time it was clear that this was going to be a rout. Big Fijian Leone Nakarawa ran in the first of his three tries at the corner with defenders bouncing off of him

Leone Nakarawa scores his first try for Glasgow Warriors v Zebre
Crowd at Scotstoun Stadium
Adam Ashe scored Glasgow's second try and as he did all night Duncan Weir secured the conversion. Weir, like Nakarawa and several other players are moving on to other clubs or retiring at the end of this season. I don't know enough to say if this is just natural churn of players or cost-cutting at Glasgow Warriors. Has their recent success been at a cost they cannot sustain with Glasgow crowds? I don't know.

Tonight they ended up running out 70-10 winners against Zebre, scoring ten tries with a conversion after each one. Getting four tries in the match secures them a bonus point and their chances of winning a home semi-final in the play-offs have improved. All that will be decided next weekend against Connacht..

Glenn Bryce scores Glasgow's third try

All that choice and I settled for chips and gravy
The sun sets on Zebre as Glasgow Warriors stuff them at Scotstoun
I don't know much about rugby but I do know that this was an embarrassingly unequal contest. The two Italian teams propping up the Pro12 league are clearly there by design rather than on merit. Perhaps the one-sided nature of the match drained any drama from this contest, but the sell out crowd seemed quite happy chatting amongst themselves for most of the game and with no obvious cheers for Italian scores there was no travelling support apparent. I didn't need to be au fait with all the rules to follow it, basically 15 big guys have got to push the ball past 15 other big guys and the referee will interrupt it every 30 seconds to get them to all stand up again. It is a sport that can produce great drama, and knife-edge matches but this wasn't one of them. As a sport it doesn't really get my juices going, except when I had the chips and gravy at half time. I walked across the car park to collect my son and his pal from their badminton club at Scotstoun, forgetting that his classmate was one of the people who got the bug for rugby with the taster sessions at school and still trains regularly with Hills at Hughenden.

"What do you like about it?" I asked him.

"It's great when you smash into someone and just wipe them out".

I shall only link to an article about Prof Allyson Pollock's research into childhood injuries in rugby, including six children paralysed in Scotland in as many years playing the sport, and leave you to form your own opinions on that one.

Cost - £30 adult £10 child

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