Planes, trains and automobiles are not the only things that roar as I discovered on a recent photography field trip to the Honourable Artillery Company stadium in London for the pre-season friendly between Saracens and London Scottish. As a thrifty feline adapted to conserving energy, I don’t normally approve of unnecessary physical exertion although I am accustomed to guttural grunting having lived with John for the last 6 years! There was quite a cacophony of snorts and bellows coming from the pitch during this physically demanding match but I can’t say I was surprised given the extraordinary stamina and strength these lads displayed.
As a cat I’m genetically programmed to nap for 18 hours a day and chase various objects to practice my hunting skills and maintain my muscle tone, as well as gawp at anything that moves and seek out nourishment in preparation for my next nap. Therefore I am naturally fascinated by the human condition of competition – the innate impulse in 99% of human beings to excel at a task and try to beat others at the performance of that task. These lads were a great example of a contest between rivals using strength, speed and strategy to move a ball around in an opponent’s territory. I understand the need to protect your territory and I guard mine furiously with daily patrols around the garden, a strict regime of scenting and guard duty at every window in the house. Any potential invaders, usually consisting of neighbours, dogs walking by and impudent pigeons that delight in cooing and flicking their tails at me just after dinner, are given my most fierce stare. A skill the rugby players have also mastered judging by the scary scowls and shoulder shoves they gave each other throughout the match. The strange thing was, as soon as the game was over, they all started cheering and the twisted expressions of pain changed quickly to happy smiles like jovial buffalo. In case you were wondering, Saracens proved their might with a 73 to 7 victory.
This game between the Saracens and the Harlequins at Wembley Stadium was what humans call a ‘grudge match’ following a previous defeat of the Harlequins at the hands of the Saracens. With record attendance for a club rugby match (in the region of 84,068 people) and enough testosterone-fuelled bulging biceps to give Arnold Schwarzenegger a run for his money, it was an occasion that John attended without me. The baying crowds and mischievous language would have been too much for a respectable chap like me, plus John doesn’t like taking me to crowded places in case I get lost or squashed.
John was so animated about the experience when he got home that I felt as though I had been there and you would have thought it was the biggest event in the history of competitive sports. I suppose for me as a laid-back feline whose interest in physical exertion is reserved for chasing mice and running between John’s feet to beat him to the kitchen, such fierce opposition around who can catch a ball and chuck it on the floor is confusing. But I guess its serious stuff when you’ve trained for years and been involved in contests so the rivalry between each team simmered close to the surface.
As the players warmed up, the crowd was treated to some music by a young pop-star called Pixie Lott who by all accounts had a very nice voice but had neglected to put on a pair of shoes. Pixie’s chilly feet were soon forgotten once the match got underway and the spirited players started charging, grunting and head-butting their way towards victory. There were several stops throughout the game for mopping up blood from various injuries including the occasional stray fist and the unfortunate referee was accidently floored by a Saracen player after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In case you’re wondering, the score was 42 to 14 to the Saracens and the poor old Harlequins went home with their tales between their legs (metaphorically speaking).
We strolled on to the sidelines with our rucksacks full of equipment and cameras dangling around our necks, a pack of photographers on the prowl, each of us using our eagle-eyed vision to judge where the action would be and plan the best shots. The venue was the impressive Allianz Park stadium in London, home to the Saracens Rugby Club since 2013. The site was developed according to best practice in sustainable building design to ensure a low environmental impact and is used primarily for rugby and athletics. The main stand runs the length of the pitch and features 3,000 permanent seats, although there are also demountable stands that allow for a capacity of around 10,000 at rugby matches. The new £500,000 artificial pitch is designed to provide the ideal playing conditions regardless of the weather and is high-tech stuff, comprised of 3 layers – a shock pad, a fibrous layer and a rubber and sand mix which gives the feel of natural glass.
The smell of hotdogs, coffee and lager drifted across from the tents as I lifted my head up to the sky, following the lines of the huge H-shaped goalposts at each end of the field. The air was filled with anticipation and excitement and the growing crowd chattered eagerly as the LED banners on the stands and entrances flashed their messages to the spectators. Everyone was in high spirits and the photographers were milling around, making adjustments to their shutter speeds and comparing the size of their lenses. Suddenly there was silence, then the crowds erupted with cheers as the Saracens and the Worcerster Warriers ran on to the pitch, all beefy and testosterone-fuelled.
The game started and boy was it rough. I had no idea what was going on because the referee communicated using hand signals and terminology I was unfamiliar with and the players spent half their time huddled together in scrums. However I did witnessed a considerable amount of grabbing, pushing, stamping and grunting as the players leapt and barged their way around the field to score points. Despite the highly competitive atmosphere, the crowd was friendly and looked colourful, with many fans dressed in creative and amusing costumes, faces painted to show their support. After 80 minutes of roaring and body-slamming (and that was just the photographers!), the Saracens were declared winners 44 to 20. Both teams played well and I could feel the exhaustion of the sweaty but smiling winning side as they firmly shook hands with the opposition and waved their macho arms enthusiastically at the people in the stands. By the way, the whole match was televised and if you watch it back, you can catch a glimpse of me and John sitting on our stools with our cameras poised capturing the action as it happens. John asked me to remind you that the camera adds 10 lbs!