You’re never more than six feet away from a stereotypical failed rugby player.
The coverage starts at 7am, but Jonty booked the area from six. You never can be too careful, after all (and the Japanese are such a prompt people, on the whole). It’s the Pool C clash between Samoa and Russia – or “Mighty Monday” as he’s dubbed it in the largely dormant Rugby World Cup WhatsApp group he set up with two bemused Spanish clients and a pitying brother-in-law.
Today, Jonty has opted to wear an England shirt from the BT Cellnet era to the pub. Sure, he could have pulled on one of the skin-tight numbers from 2007, 2011, 2015 or 2019. They still fit well enough, especially since he joined F45 last summer and started drinking Huel. But it’s sometimes fun to have a collar to turn up, isn’t it. Pairs nicely with the Samuel Windsors.
“That’s it, Fordy!” he shouts at the TV as an England try is replayed. “My little brother played against him at Yorkshire U13s,” he says to a passing barmaid. “Dominated him in the tackle area, actually.”
Jonty’s own playing career was cut tragically short at 17. “We were 15 points up against Bryanston. I’d been kicking the corners all day – playing flat, controlling the tempo, taking the points, building a lead,” he’d told colleagues at work drinks that week. “Went up for a high ball, landed funny – and my knee just exploded. One week before South West trials. Physio said it was the worst ACL injury he’d ever seen,” he’d said, looking down ruefully into his Guinness. “Do you think you could have gone all the way?” asked an intern – the only person who hadn’t heard this anecdote several times before. “Maybe, Martin, maybe,” came the wistful reply. “But the game’s changed so much now…”
Still, there’s always touch rugby on the common. This is a ritual Jonty can just about keep up with, so long as both knees are scaffolded theatrically with tubigrip and electrical tape. (Once he even wore a scrum cap, “just like Cheslin Kolbe”.) He buys new boots before each summer season – neon yellow this year, and largely carbon fibre – and often sports a backwards cap, because that’s how they do it in Australia. Sometimes, if there are girls nearby, he squeezes his torso into a risqué pink wife-beater from a stag do at the Amsterdam Sevens in 2016. (“I couldn’t play, but they needed someone to enforce the drinking games,” he winks.) The name on the back reads: “Ice Man”. His shorts are signed in faded biro by Iain Balshaw (“best attacking full back in the history of the game”). He wears knee-length Lycra and walks home in a Schoffel.
Rugby, to Jonty, is more than a sport. It is a second home (well, technically a fourth home if you count the rents’ house in Sussex and the Salcombe flat). It is a font of emotion. One year, when he learned that his alma mater, Exeter, had been knocked out by UWIC in a BUCS quarter-final, he took to his bedroom in the Fulham flatshare and solemnly downed a bottle of Waitrose port in front of a highlights reel from 2003. (At another moment he found himself humming ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ during intercourse.) James Haskell is his favourite comedian. For his birthday, Jonty went to see Chris Robshaw and Wayne Barnes do a live demonstration of the new tackle laws. Great craic, and actually really good blokes. The group selfie got 14 likes on Instagram the next day. An aunt commented: “You look well, Jonathan!”
Back in the pub, Samoa lead by six points to three. “A real thriller,” he says to himself, before screaming at a prop forward halfway across the world. “Collapsing the maul, sir!” he cries, as an onion ring leaps from his plate. The alcove fits eight to ten – “pints or people?” he’d joked to the Saffer barman on the phone – but 72 minutes in and it’s still just Jonty. Soon it’ll be time to peel off the samurai headband and head into the office for a slightly sloppy presentation and a snooze in the disabled loos.
But here, now, there are eight minutes still to play – hundreds of seconds of distance left to run. And after that… the knockout stages, the third-place play-off, the final… the Six Nations, the autumn internationals, the Lions tour… and before you know it another World Cup; more Guinness, more chat, more stats, more craic. An ecstasy of riches. There are hands in the ruck, Jonty thinks. But there’s a song in his heart.
Joe Bullmore is the editor of Gentleman’s Journal.