I took a friend to Goldington Road this weekend.
“Is it always like this?” he asked, as we headed into the marquee: the large, white hospitality tent positioned on the north side of the famous sloping pitch. We weaved our way through a backslapping crowd; fans abuzz with a 53-52 last minute win against Coventry. You are unlikely to see a game like it any time soon.
It’s not always like this. In truth, in terms of results, Bedford is just like any other rugby club: you win some, you lose some. Some you don’t deserve, others are stolen from you. And then there are games like the one we’d just watched. Two teams intent on playing a style of rugby that trusts attack more than it does defence. The glib comments flowed afterwards: “Was tackling optional?” But that’s more to do with where the game finds itself at the moment. Defence is where people think it’s at. If you outdefend another team, you tend to prevail. You manage performances, play in the right areas, restrict chances, shut down, stifle, suffocate. You don’t ‘win’ many games in top level rugby nowadays, you just don’t lose them.
There were mistakes in the game at Goldington Road; players caught out of position. Lines were cut and defenders clutched big armfuls of fresh air. But those gaps still have to be found. You have to be looking. The speed of the game was eye catching; it zipped along. There were no energy-sapping, time-eroding scrums in the first half. The ball was regularly in hand and rarely hoofed clear. JP Doyle, the referee, communicated his thoughts clearly but was seldom needed. Good games and good referees will often be found together. Sorry, maybe that needs repeating; it is as unusual as the scoreline: the first scrum took place in the 52nd minute. Weird.
The first quarter of the game was frenetic. Coventry burst forth like an angry water pipe. There was half a dozen former Blues employees in their ranks and they’d been geed up. Ben Nutley, the former Saints’ back rower, was imperious; both Bulumakau brothers, flanking the Coventry back line, looked dangerous; Halaifonua, too, from fullback; Pete White and Tony Fenner, two of those erstwhile Blues, feathered passes and kicked beautifully from the tee. The visitors almost raced three scores clear. But by half time, were only one. There’d been nine tries in forty minutes.
Bedford have been playing well of late. They downed Ealing a fortnight previously with a combination of guile and bloodymindedness. The East Midlands outfit produce good games of rugby though, more often than not. Mike Rayer is one of the longest serving Directors of Rugby for the sole reason that the rugby he oversees is such good fun. His cauldron is a heady concoction of skill, simplicity and surroundings. Create unity and belonging, and the rest is all catching, passing and tackling.
Up against him, from Coventry, was an old friend. Bedford have never played as eye-catchingly as when Rayer and Nick Walshe were working together. On opposing sides, there was only going to be one result. Like conjurors trying to ‘out-magic’ each other, the watching public were always going to be the main beneficiaries.
The second half slowed but still pulsed with sublime moments of skill. Coventry’s final try was as good as any that afternoon. It swept up the field inexorably, the ball recycled through phases that stretched the width of the pitch. And yet, as Maisey’s conversion drifted wide, there was still time. Still lines left to be read. And they would be uttered by Bedford.
James Lennon was excellent for the Blues, Sean McCarthy too. Jarad Williams carried enormously, but in Richard Lane, Bedford have something special. Time and again, the fullback found space where there wasn’t any. His second half try is worth watching again; it summed up the afternoon. Magical.
And that kind of brings me round to my point. This was magic for magic’s sake. Neither of these clubs has current sights set on anything more than existing in England’s second tier. Both have felt the scalding pain of spending outside of their means and have therefore come to settle on a ledge as high as necessary. This game had nothing riding on it other than bragging rights and sporting kudos. And yet, in the money-minded, capital fund focused world rugby currently exists in, ‘that’s not good enough’ come the sneers.
Isn’t it? Are we really that far gone? Have we really forgotten what this was all about? Sport is just sport, isn’t it? It shouldn’t really matter. Yes, make it professional, proper, but don’t lose sight of its purpose. It’s here to make us feel good. Give us hope. Bring us together, not pull us apart.
In the not too distant future, my bet is that the men who control the professional game will ring fence the top tier, separate themselves from the rest. And I understand why. Funnily enough, it’s all about defence. They have something good, and they don’t want to lose it. So you eliminate risk, remove the threat of failure. However, possibly, in doing so, you risk snuffing out clubs like Bedford and Coventry. Clubs who can’t afford to be in your gang but, nonetheless, love the game as much as you do. Ring fencing is divisive. And life is always better when we look after each other.
I don’t have any answers. But I know that if you were at Goldington Road on Saturday afternoon, watching two great clubs play a game for no other reason than entertainment, you will have come away with the same nagging question:
“Why can’t it always be like this?”