Now I am sure that many looking at this will have shared similar experiences, whether male or female, as sport seemed to hold a special place in a good education during the 1960s and probably still does today. At Roundhay School the most important sport was Rugby Union and at the time, 1960s to 1970s, it was a sport for amateur gentlemen, whereas Rugby League was seen as a lesser sport played for money. At the time, you were banned from playing Union if you had played league, but those days are long past.
I have spoken about house rugby where as novices we were introduced to the gruelling complexities of tackling. The rule was go in hard and go in low, and somehow this was supposed to avoid injury to oneself, but I don’t think there was much empirical evidence to support this and I saw quite a few fearless tackles result in the tackler being injured. Probably the most questionable features were the scrum and the loose maul. In the 1960s, the scrum was started by both sides forming up and then ramming into the heads of the opposing set pack. The luckless hooker had his arms wrapped around the props on either side and therefore was completely unable to protect himself from the clash of heads and probable concussion. I can only assume that the effect of the concussion meant the boy was less reluctant to continue in this role. I only remember taking the role once and immediately sought a safer place to play the game. I slipped back into scrum-half and full-back roles where at least you could respond to incoming opponents, take evasive action, or suffer the consequences if you saw fit.
The rugby season lulled you in gently. At the start the grass was long and thick and being tackled was almost a gentle caress, but as the weather deteriorated the pitches became rutted, filled with puddles of icy water and later frozen with hard ridges of rock-hard soil that hurt like a hammer blow and could tear the skin like a rasp. There were many times when I was at the bottom of a loose maul with countless enthusiastic boys piling in with glee at the knowledge that those at the bottom were suffering, when I feared for my life. My face pressed into the pool of watery mud, chest compressed, seeing my short life pass before me and tiny sucks of clear air through the side of the mouth being the only thing keeping me conscious. Salvation came from the referee, Salisbury, Wareham or one of the others shouting abuse and telling the players to get up. I don’t ever remember any sympathy being shown to the luckless victims. I got off lightly and raced back to seek revenge, but some did suffer injuries that were not easily ignored. I wasn’t aware at the time, but my family has a circulatory condition where the blood is drawn from the extremities in cold weather. Both my brothers have medication for it, but living in Western Australia, I don’t require any. In Leeds though, I just assumed everyone’s hands froze in cold weather and that it took them a long time before they could hold and write after being outside in winter. The benefit for me in playing rugby was that the numbness meant that I felt little pain in my hands during the game and this, mixed with the adrenalin of the competition, resulted in me being oblivious to injuries until after warming up after the communal baths. Only then did the pain creep into my hands and the cuts, scratches and bruises decide to let me know that I hadn’t escaped scot-free. I have very strong finger nails and grabbing opponents’ shirts often would bend them backwards, rather than breaking them and this would appear as a rather unpleasant surprise after we had finished. The reality was that I was young and foolhardy and I loved playing. I managed my playing at Roundhay without any major injuries and it was later at a youth club competition where I had my first and last one.
There were some ungentlemanly tricks played by some boys and the primary one was boot studs. At the time, studs were mainly screw-ins and were either nylon or aluminium. The nylon ones tended to just wear down and needed to be replaced by the time they reached the inner screw. The aluminium ones though were hollow. The trip from the changing rooms to the fields meant crossing over the yard and paved areas and we used to slide on the surface whilst trotting over. Afterwards, on the return, there was the additional stamping to remove the clods of earth and turf. I am sure the sounds will have stayed with those of us who made the trip. The effect of the slipping was that the aluminium would wear down and ultimately the end of the stud would wear away, leaving a razor sharp circle. This was certainly a time for them to be replaced, but devious players knew they could inflict injuries on opposing players and wore them as weapons. I am sure that many still carry the scars. Other unsportsmanlike play involved eye gouging, raking opponents with studs whilst lying on the ground, grabbing opponents’ testicles during scrums and mauls, and straight arm tackles.
As it was, I managed to present as a reasonable player and I must say that I did enjoy the game. There was a ritual to the game that appealed to me, and this is probably true about most, if not all team games, and I think there are many positives, but there are some dark sides as well. I was chosen to play inter-school for Roundhay and that meant playing on Saturday mornings. Home games were easy. We just rocked up at school, got changed and met the opposition and hopefully thrashed them. I have included the season review from the 1969 Roundhegian and our Under 14 XV and it shows how one-sided most of the games were and I believe it was even worse the year before.
Away games were much more of an event and each year we received a printed fixture list. A coach would arrive to take us and we would all pile in, bags for kit stored under the bus. I believe that we all had to wear our school uniform as we had to look our best as guests of the other schools. We travelled quite long distances and on the way we tended to be quite restrained. The school we visited varied considerably. Some were old schools, with wonderful buildings and grounds and others more modest. After the games the host schools provided refreshments and again these varied considerably. Some were a piece of cake and cup of tea or soup and others more lavish with a wide range. When we went to play Bridlington that was a long journey and a full day’s event. There was one game I remember well and that was playing Bradford Grammar School. We had had a great season and felt confident, but they were a skill level above us and thrashed us 22 – 0. We had done a similar thing to a couple of teams earlier in the season and the 43-0, and 29-0 scores don’t show how one-sided the games were. One pitch was on a very steep hill and the first half we played uphill and scored many times, but the second half was cut short as the score was getting out of hand.
One the way home from the games the mood tended to get a little boisterous. Rugby songs were quite acceptable in these less PC times and Dinah was quite prepared to show her leg! A wide range of songs were belted out on the buses and the teachers didn’t appear to notice or mind, particularly if we had won. If we had lost, it tended to be more subdued.
Sometimes things got out of hand and one incident has stuck with me, and probably with the boy who was the victim. I don’t know how it started, but we were returning from the Skipton Grammar School game and had just lost a close game. The poor lad in question was chosen for no reason that I was aware of and suddenly he was being wrestled and there was the sound of struggling coming from a pair of seats and boys were hanging over and encouraging one another. The boy in question grasped his trouser waist whilst the attackers attempted to undo his belt and trousers. Being out-numbered and the noise on the bus drowning out his appeals for help, he was without hope. Within moments his trousers were removed and then his red underpants were the focus of comments and attention.
“All right, you’ve had your fun!’ fell on deaf ears and, despite his valiant struggle and almost super-human strength to maintain his modesty, his undies were ripped off and someone decided to wave them out of the coach window and finally allowed them to be cast to the four winds. I have no idea what the Skipton locals thought as a pair of red underpants descended amongst them. The victim was given back his trousers and he struggled to get them on and regain some modesty. The teachers didn’t appear aware of anything happening and the journey continued on, for all but one on the bus a great day out. This incident shows the not very nice side of teams and pack behaviour, and I have wondered over the years the impact this had on the luckless victim. It was a step up from towel flicking whilst in the showers and other pranks, but unfortunately was not an isolated incident. I know how incidents like this can affect a person’s self esteem and the implications can last a lifetime. I am sure that much worse things have happened to people, but I for one am ashamed for my part in it, even as a bystander. I don’t know if girls’ schools had anything remotely similar. I tend to doubt it, as teenage boys are a species of their own!