Playing ball

Richard Croasdale gets a crash course in rugby, from the brewers who know a thing or two about chasing eggs


The atmosphere of a live rugby match can be truly incredible. Even watching a small local team feels gladiatorial; men and women putting their bodies on the line in a battle of skill, strength and determination, down in the mud and grass. But it’s also arguably the ultimate small screen sport; whether in a pub or at home, I’ve always found it easier to connect with rugby than with the sterile, distant feel of televised football for example. The closest you can get to the thrill of live sport is in a good pub with other rugby fans, the beer is flowing, you’re sharing the soaring highs and nail-biting lows of a close match – it’s exhilarating. 

So when we decided to make this issue a celebration of a year of great rugby, the only sensible move was to call up our good friends at London’s Wolfpack, and beg a crash course in the real beautiful game. For those unfamiliar with Wolfpack (inexcusable), founder Chris Wyles and Alistair Hargreaves are both retired professional rugby players with London-based Saracens, though Chris has also captained the USA Eagles and Hargreaves has four international caps for South Africa.

I met up with the pair at their awesome taproom in Queen’s Park, London. A former mechanic’s lock-up, the whole bar was fitted out by the Wolfpack team, and is now neighbour to a whole raft of cool restaurants and bars. Although they only retired from Saracens within the past couple of years, they began hatching plans for their next steps well in advance, and started brewing as Wolfpack way back in 2014. Chris explains why getting this transition right was so important. 

“All I’d wanted for as long as I could remember was to be a professional athlete, and then one day you realise there’ll come a time when you’re no longer able to do that,” he says. “It can hit some people really hard, not just professionally but psychologically; you retire and suddenly you’re not that person any more. The brewery definitely softened that for me, because it was already up and running well by the time I left Saracens – it gave me something else I could put my energy and purpose into, which I still felt was connected to my rugby life.”

Alistair continues: “I don’t think we could have got set up as quickly as we did without our network – people we’d met through the club. There’s a lot of good people involved in rugby, and sport in general, who are really willing to help. And we’ve found the same thing in the beer industry too, people who are really willing to help if you put yourself out there, make friends, knock on doors.”

The beers are currently a lager and a pilsner, both of which are excellent, classic examples of the style. In fact, the first time I met the duo was at Craft Beer Rising in 2017, where their stand was surrounded by other brewers seeking refreshment. This stands to reason; Wolfpack’s brand and brewing ethos is firmly focused on the social side of beer, bringing pals together to watch a match and enjoy some easy-drinking lagers. There’s no inverted snobbery at work here - nobody’s saying that strong, hoppy beers have gone too far, simply that someone hankering after a straight-up, sessionable lager shouldn’t have to settle for macro-brewed rubbish.

Pitch perfect

I played a tiny bit of rugby at school, as it was the only field sport I wasn’t consistently picked last for (I could run, and felt that being kicked in the face seemed a fair price to pay for the respect of my peers). So it’s a real thrill when Alistair and Chris reveal we’d got an hour booked on the pitch at Allianz Park, home of the Saracens, to throw a ball around and put me through my paces.

It’s only when I’m standing in that hallowed ground though, in my size-S running shorts and bobble hat (it’s January, don’t judge me) that I realise how badly this could go. Like every pro rugby player I’ve ever met, Alistair and Chris are absolute diamonds – friendly, smart, great chat – but they’re also enormous and clearly an order of magnitude faster and stronger than I could ever hope to be.

We start off with what I’m assured is a standard part of the team’s regular training regime: the ‘150’. This involves running flat out from one goal line to the other, then back to the centre line, before walking to the touch line – thereby giving you perhaps 15 seconds of recovery – before doing it all over again. This kind of high-intensity training is great for cardiovascular fitness, and before too long my lungs are burning, my heart is maxed out and I’ve turned an alarming shade of pink. The professionals, obviously, are barely breaking a sweat.

Next up is drop kicks at the goal. This is more like what I’d pictured, sending the ball soaring majestically between the very posts I’ve seen so many times on my TV. The technique, I’m told, is to drop the ball at one’s feet and strike its front face just as it’s hitting the ground. My first attempt is broadly on target, but I wait too long for the bounce and send the ball well under the crossbar. My next effort is better, but I catch the ball before it hits the ground – I’m told this is a ‘punt’, and fine – and it whistles cleanly between the posts and a good couple of meters over the crossbar. Success. I look back expectantly at Matt Curtis – our photographer for the day – who just shrugs apologetically. You’ll just need to take my word that this actually happened, because my third and final shot goes well wide and is snatched effortlessly out of the air by Alistair.

There’s a shocking amount of running involved in rugby; many situations call for players to simply outpace their opponents in a flat run, but also to have the strength and dexterity to outfox or plough through the defending team. For our next exercise, I’m given a ball and told to try to get past Alistair and Chris. I know I need momentum, and to keep my centre of gravity low, so I tuck the ball under my arm and lean into a kind of weird diagonal sprint. Alistair – suddenly looking every inch of his impressive 6’8” – hunkers down and I realise with a sinking feeling that I’m too committed for a last-second change of direction and simply bounce off his shoulder and upper arm. Okay, it’s a learning curve.

Squaring off again, I decide to try and use my relative lightness to dodge a little, and don’t pitch forward quite so much – after all there’s no way I’m going to barrel my way through these two. If anything, this goes slightly worse, in the sense that Chris and Alistair easily anticipate where I’m going to end up and collectively lift me into the air by my legs before dropping me face down on the astroturf.

The guys are on a roll now and, encouraged by Matt (who should really try and remember who pays his freelance fees), decide we should switch places and have me try to tackle Alistair. We give him some distance for a run-up, and for a moment the trick of perspective makes me believe that I might want to give this a genuine go. At around the five-metre mark though, my amygdala wakes up, does its evolutionary job and sends me sprinting in the opposite direction as fast as my skinny antelope legs will carry me (preternaturally fast, as it turns out).

While it’s safe to say I won’t be troubling the world of professional rugby union, it’s been a superb morning and a real honour to muck about on the Saracens home turf. If nothing else, the bragging rights should be worth a few pints when I get home.

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