This is my first piece for Blood & Mud, and I think there is something I have to address head-on before I go any further. I have a mild obsession with recently-retired Ospreys, London Irish & Wales centre Jonathan Spratt. This isn’t an obsession born out of biased love (See Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar), sheer admiration (Dan Carter, Brian O’Driscoll), begrudging respect (Maro Itoje, Richie McCaw) or even some sort of sexuality-bending dreamboat factor (Tommy Bowe, Samson Lee). I have a mild obsession with Jonathan Spratt because I believe him to be the most mediocre player to ever play the game, and I think that is something worth celebrating.
For those of you unaware of Spratt, he looks like the kind of man you nod to every morning on your commute, but won’t risk striking up a conversation with for fear he could easily be really into the history of concrete. He always appears to be squinting, and seems to dye his hair with a lemon. In interviews, he talks like a chartered accountant trying to ape Tarantino dialogue. When he laughs, it looks like his mouth is glitching out, and could render itself onto the floor at any moment. He doesn’t have a twitch as far as I can tell, but I’ve rarely seen a man who looks more like he should have one. The most iconic moment of his career was probably the time he shouted the word “FORWARD” so aggressively that it echoed back through rugby history and became the collective term for the eight angriest people on the pitch.
As a player, he was one of those rare centres who can run, pass, kick and tackle, just none of them especially well. I must have watched Spratt play over one hundred times and am at a loss to describe him. Normally, if you want to demonstrate a player is shit, you can point to what they do badly. Dan Parks tackled like a doormat. Eduardo Padovanni has no sense of positioning. James Haskell is fine until the egg-shaped thing gets involved. But Jonathan Spratt could tackle, position himself, and seemed quite fond of the weird white egg all his mates would inexplicably fight over once a week. His decision making wasn’t even that bad. And yet, you pull everyone who ever watched him play to one side and ask “Was Jonathan Spratt shit?”, at least two thirds will reply “Who?”.
He wasn’t even a Stephen Myler-esque figure, world-class at being ‘just OK’. He was week-on-week anonymous. I only ever noticed him because, every time I saw his name on a teamsheet, I would watch him closely, squinting so hard it almost became an impression. And every week, nothing. He would do nothing. If someone made one of those YouTube ‘tribute’ videos for Spratt, comprising of all the best moments of his entire career, they’d have to set it to Vatican Broadside by Half Man Half Biscuit because if they picked a song any longer than 32 seconds they’d struggle to find enough replays of his one try against Cardiff Blues in 2013 to pad the bastard out.
My brother played age-grade rugby against a handful of players who have gone on to play in the Premiership, and regularly makes the point that, no matter how shit they appear on TV, at one stage, they were all the best player on their team. They dominated the division. I can’t picture Jonathan Spratt dominating any division since he realised you don’t need a GCSE in Maths to become a professional rugby player. He was an inexplicable thing, a man parachuted into professional rugby seemingly just because his surname was so silly no talent scout could forget it.
His career is a sustained mystery to me, but so is the way of the mediocre player. It’s easy to sit in the stands and say “I could do better than that”. But the truth is, I could never kick as well as Parks. I can’t counter-attack like Padovanni. And though I probably could do better than Haskell, I’m 5’6” and have the build of an anaemic meerkat, so I get why selectors felt he may have more potential as an international backrow forward than me. But Jonathan Spratt? I genuinely don’t get what anyone saw in Jonathan Spratt.
After a long career and four Wales caps, I think the best I can say about Jonathan Spratt is that he’s the kind of guy who, after you had a shocker for the thirds on a Sunday afternoon, would pat you on the back in front of everyone and say “Happens to all of us, sonny boy”, a nice sentiment that nonetheless drew attention to a shitshow you’d rather nobody mentioned ever again.
As far as I can work out, this was why Jonathan Spratt made it through an entire career in professional rugby without anyone stopping to ask how the hell it happened. Spratt was the kind of guy you meet constantly at amateur rugby clubs. The guy who starts every week because he organises the Facebook group and gives a few of the lads lifts to away games. The guy who claps every tackle. The guy whose workmates only tolerate his stories about “The Boys” because they’re worried if they don’t he’ll start talking about concrete. His stories were all forty minutes long and without a punchline, but he’d give a droll “You couldn’t make it up” and you’d smirk because you were stuck with him all the way to Market Harborough RFC. You didn’t rate him as a player and, if you’re honest, didn’t like him as a bloke, but you respected him as a member of the rugby club.
If the Ospreys, London Irish, or on four desperate occasions, Wales didn’t have people paid to wash the kit, you just know ol’ Spratty would have taken it all home and put it in the tumble dryer by mistake. Each game he’d try really, really hard to organise the defence, but really had no idea what was going on. And from time-to-time, you’d have to talk to him, because he was the only other guy who watched rugby outside of the international windows. Jonathan Spratt was that guy, but with four international caps. A hero who showed that being shite at rugby should be no barrier to building a life around playing rugby.
For the Jonathan Spratts of this world, rugby was not about winning, having fun, demonstrating their talent, or even homoeroticism. I have no idea what rugby was about for people like Spratt, but I’m so glad they were there. I think every team, amateur or otherwise, needs that guy. They may not want them, but I don’t think rugby would be rugby without people like Jonathan Spratt.