Sport

Toffs still in charge of English rugby – or the  World Cup

as seen from the Northern Antipodes

By Tom Aitken in London

How is the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand is being received in the British media?

 

The first reply has to be that in the British media, rugby comes, very nearly all the time, well down in the pecking order. Above it come football, horse racing, motor racing, tennis, cricket, boxing, athletics and Rugby League.

 

At the time of writing, the sports section of The Independent has five pages on football, two on boxing, three on rugby, one on cycling, two on racing, one on cricket and one on tennis.

 

To put all this another way, football is king, even in the ‘posh’ press, and the rest cluster around its shorts.

 

So far as rugby is concerned, it is still associated with public schools (and grammar schools until they were abolished) and sections of society jeeringly defined as the ‘upper’ or ‘huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ classes.

 

The home crowd at Twickenham tend to have braying accents and laughs. Gents wear ties, tweed jackets, brogues and camelhair coats. Ladies past thirty wear smart sensible skits and knitted tops. The younger women look as if they went to Benenden (or are in rebellion against it) and very much as if they might know Zara Phillips, as was.

There is, of course, an element of caricature, in the above, but only an element.

As far as coverage of the World Cup is concerned, should England make it to Eden Park for the final (which, as usual at this stage of the competition, looks desperately unlikely) all that will temporarily change. Clear the front page!

Should they win the final? Clear the front page, print a special pull-out supplement!

There might even be another victory parade through central London like the one I found my self in Oxford Street eight years ago. We shall see.

In the meantime, the two pages on Rugby in today’s Independent are full of interest.

In a whole-page article ‘Where did all the minnows go?’ Chris Hewett takes us back to 1987: All Blacks 70-Italy 6.

His point is two-fold. First, this kind of one-sided non-competition is, in commercial terms, a disaster. ‘…anyone who actually enjoys watching one rugby team smithereen another… is either a sadist or a fool.’

This time, he says, there has so far been just one ‘unpalatable shellacking’: All Blacks 87-Italy 7.

But, and this is his second point, such margins are increasingly rare. He prints statistics of winning margins through the history of this contest to illustrate the point. Closer matches make for better viewing.

As we all know, the best rugby match is hard-fought and brilliantly played, and the deciding points (preferably a try) are scored in the last three minutes.

Hewitt accredits this rise of the ‘minnows’ to two closely related factors: the willingness of the International Rugby Board’s to invest money in the game all round the world and the resulting use of coaches from major rugby coaches by the developing nations.

Hewett finishes his piece thus: ‘as the great art historian Kenneth Clark noted, internationalism is accepted unquestioningly when something really matters’.

Certainly, to take up his point, I have been thrilled by the tremendous displays by Georgia, Romania, Canada and others, and, in a slightly different context by Ireland’s defeat of Australia.

The second page of the Independent spread reports Italy’s defeat of Russia, then gives James Lawton space to examine, fairly I think, the contention that the lesser nations in the competition have been put at a disadvantage by the scheduling.

He quotes, of course, Eliota Fuimano-Sapolu’s contention that the policy on rest time is equivalent to slavery and the holocaust, notes with approval Fuiman-Sapolu’s swift withdrawal of his remark, but accepts the soundness of his basic argument that it was outrageous to expect the minor nations to face the major sides on half the recuperation time those giants enjoyed.

For all the levelling up noted by Hewett, another division of power that has so far been thought significant by commentators here, is the hemispherical divide. Would the inevitable result to be the Tri Nations sharing the first three places, with England and the rest following in an undignified straggle?

Perhaps not. Australia has been beaten by Ireland. South Africa struggled to beat Wales. New Zealand, meanwhile, is unsure about the fitness of some key players.

That’s the view from the London Bridge.

But, to more peripheral matters. An indignant man has written to the London Evening Standard to say that if Her Majesty the Queen wants someone to administer a thrashing to the disgraced Mike Tindall, he is more than willing to do the job.

Elsewhere, an Australian (or a Kiwi––accounts differ) breakfasting in Queenstown interposed in an English discussion of ‘Dwarfgate’ at the next table. ‘“What you Poms should be asking is, if Tindall can toss a dwarf, why can’t he pass a ——- ball?”

Somewhat by contrast, The Guardian has reported at some length on the 19 chaplains who are present to offer spiritual support to the players.

One of them is the Chaplain of the London Wasps, David Chawner who quotes a member of the All Blacks World Cup winning side of 1987, on the ethics of God-fearing men smashing the hell out of their opponents. “Michael Jones used to say: ‘God has taught us it is more blessed to give than to receive.’  It is a good line whether you happen to believe in spiritual nourishment or not.”

Meanwhile, it appears that the New Zealand management is taking a tougher line with players who drink unwisely than did Martin Johnson.

Johnson himself is reported to have been white-faced with anger as he berated his players for the huge number of penalties they gave away during the first half against Georgia. It appears too that the backs had made some pointed criticisms of the forwards, who were mainly responsible.

Did this link up with Tindall’s misbehaviour in some way, making the forwards the cause of the ill-repute from which the team suffers?

When newspapermen asked this, the backs said swiftly that the entire team were brothers in arms, saintly to a fault, etc.

More cheerfully, I learn that the cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs and general traders of Rotorua are looking forward to a bumper weekend as the 26,000-strong sell out crowd arrives for Ireland v. Russia.

And have you heard about Alex and Emma-Louise Box, married three weeks ago at Twickenham, as reported in the Guardian? Emma Louise changed into her wedding dress in the home dressing room, their wedding photos were taken on the pitch and their honeymoon is being devoted to following England’s progress. (Whether this is from 12,000 miles away or on the spot is unclear from the report.)

Whichever, all this is at Emma-Louise’s insistence. And, wait for it, she drinks beer. No rugby widow she!

The Editor has suggested that, to finish, I might mention some of my own rugby ‘exploits’.

Perhaps I’ll just report that my career ended unexpectedly in a southerly buster accompanied by horizontal rain somewhere in the Hutt Valley in 1961. The referee called time on the match early, after a sixth player was removed from the field with a badly twisted knee or ankle.

I decided to abandon the idea of becoming an All Black.

Previous to that, the highlight had perhaps been the time when, still at school, and a somewhat languid breakaway (as flankers used to be called), I seized the collar of the opposing halfback following a scrum.

He got his pass away as I seized him but somehow I didn’t let go and he fell, not at all heavily, to the ground. The referee, a short, rotund local butcher, blew a very long blast and penalised me for dangerous play.

My father, watching three feet away on the touchline, was still giggling when the match ended ten minutes later.

 

 

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