Rugby; sport or war without the weapons? Most fans lean toward the latter.
Indeed, the language of war has soaked into the rugby lexicon – trenches, yards gained, battles, carnage, rumbling forward, etc –
and is used by some commentators week in and week out.
But the link between the two goes back further than one would imagine and, unsurprisingly, like many warrior cultures in the past, rugby players have long prized facial hair as a declaration of manliness, a weapon of intimidation and a badge of ruggedness.
Rugby, facial hair and war have a long and glorious history indeed. In rugby’s early days most national teams were composed of many men of a military background. For example, this rare group photo shows British Army officers who represented England at rugger in 1899 before shipping out to the Second Boer War.
In the context of modern rugby, facial hair is mainly seen as the provenance of the forwards, appropriate as forward packs are very much the spiritual successors of most nation’s ancestral warriors.
To the untutored eye many just look like groups of big fat blokes with random beards scattered among them looking, for all intents and purposes, like a polyester-clad Hell’s Angels gang.
But, with ten seconds or so of painstaking analysis, a clear pattern emerges.
The Front Row
If the forwards are the spiritual successors of warrior cultures then the front row, and the props in particular, are the vanguard of that. Tough, fearless, willing to step into harm’s way and bow to no man – unless a deliberate scrum collapse is needed – these men command respect.
Well, most of them anyway.
Many choose to cultivate beards to enhance that respect, leading to the emergence of The Prop-er Beard©.
As befits their rank as most vital man on the team, tightheads are given the honour of Prima Hirsuita or First Beard.
In many cases looseheads remain clean-shaven in deference.
The best of tightheads are often living avatars of their nation’s military past. The greatest of tightheads can even take the field with perms and escape taunts about their sexuality.
The First Law, in case you’re wondering, states that another man’s beard may only be admired with the eyes, not the hands. There is no Second Law.
Hookers tend to remain clean-shaven due to the 1978 Treaty of Canterbury whereby hookers across the world agreed to remain clean-shaven where possible to spare the rest of us endless terrible jokes about “hairy hookers” and “bearded ladies”. For that we owe them eternal thanks.
The Second Row
Due to the nature of head placement during scrums, most locks choose not to grow full beards as it is considered disrespectful to the beard to shove it up a prop’s arse.
A small sub-set of bearded locks prefer the full-on intimidation factor and go for the psychopath combo of shaved head and very long beard. So rare is this combo that the mere sight of it can inspire dread. Such as the time the alleged #1 tough-guy scrum-half in the world wet his pants when he met one.
A proud moment for beards everywhere.
But the prevailing trend among locks is for stubble, both designer and scruffy.
Over the course of his career Victor Matfield became so associated with this look that it has opened up a life beyond rugby.
The Back Row
Largely freed from the travails of the worst of the scrum, the back rows, and flankers in particular, are free to run riot.
Like tribute bands with more enthusiasm than talent, what they can come up with can often be gloriously daft and some deserve great credit for the gusto with which they throw themselves into it.
The most common of these eye-catching back-row styles is known as The Friendly Lumberjack in honour of Canadian players – like Adam Kleeburger – who have endeavoured to make it their own and push it to strange new places.
In Part 2 of Beards of War, coming soon to an AoD ATL near you, Crashball examines the prevalence of beards amongst backs in a searing analysis subtitled Bumfluff Brigade