This column first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Rugby World magazine.
WE RUGGER players do love a drink. Often enjoyed – popular folklore pretty much has it bang on here – from unusual vessels, such as a standard issue boat shoe. And conspicuous consumption is not just limited to the grass-roots game. The majority of professionals, even the properly athletic, talented ones rather than those who somehow ended up being paid for being outsized and good at lifting heavy things, jump at any chance to get blotto. This is a great surprise to the civilians you encounter on a night out as the sight of their hero puking in a nightclub toilet somehow doesn’t tally with the day job of modern-day gladiator, risking life and gym-honed limb for a beer-fuelled audience’s amusement.
The culture of getting boozed after a match dies hard, and most professional sides will have a decent blowout a few times a year, with or without the imprimatur of the bosses. Rugby may be at the extreme end of the spectrum but plenty of other sports are at it too: Wayne Rooney dribbling at a provincial wedding; Ryan Lochte smashing up a Brazilian service station; Freddie Flintoff slurring at Number 10. Win or lose, once the tiresome chore of competition is out of the way, many sportsmen just can’t wait to get their hands on a blue WKD.
Why do we do it? Arguments can be made for alcohol’s effectiveness as a tool for team bonding, or as a release valve after the build-up of pressure going into a big game. So a very shaky case could be put for it being some sort of psychological aid in a group’s development.
But, performance-wise, there is not one positive to be had from getting steamboats. Nietzsche (I know, check me out) argued against alcohol as he reckoned it numbs pain and reassures us things are fine as they are and we don’t have to change anything about our lives. Speaking as a mediocre, journeyman pro sportsman, that sounds like a pretty good sales pitch – temporary respite from the knowledge you’ll always be average in your chosen field. And that leads us to a fact which is uncomfortable for most professionals. For a true great, being the best is enough, and your Wilkinsons, McCaws, Ronaldos, Murrays etc, either don’t drink or hardly touch the stuff.
Cod psychology aside, how does a drinking culture in a professional side manifest itself? There are two types of boozing: sanctioned and illicit. A coach may have various reasons to call for his team to have “a couple of beers” (it’s always a couple). He may want the boys to let off some steam and get to know each other, or to control how much is taken. Either way, these gatherings usually have the distinct whiff of ‘forced fun’, especially when the habitually psychotic head coach circulates like the host of a Mike Leigh cocktail party trying to show he is just a bloody good bloke. In any event, while the most diligent players will have their shandy and head to bed, there will always be a hardcore who use a team beer as a springboard to a night of full-on debauchery.
The demographic of this hardcore is not fixed. It will contain the obvious cohort of very young, very fit men with above-average disposable income, but the drinkers in a club may also come from the seasoned, sometimes jaded, older pros frustrated with the mundanity of their sporting life and keen to jump on any passing funwagon. Those with families may also grab any mandatory team night or day out as another opportunity for a bit of ‘home avoidance’. Charming concept, I know.
I’m a slight outlier and do most of my drinking during the week, working my way through a bottle of wine a night Sunday through Wednesday. This is partly due to deep angst at my place in the sporting world and partly because I can’t think of anything better to do with my evenings than get tipsy while looking at autotrader.com.
That is why Eddie Jones’s approach, which seems to be doing the trick in reforming previously wayward characters in the England squad, is such a gossamer-thin tightrope for a head coach to tread. Apparently, he relies on the players to regulate themselves and “treats men like men” (ooh, I get a tingle just writing that). The problem with this is that most men, like me, are idiots.