Wednesday, 12 October 2011

England Expects

So, probably I am the last person qualified to offer an opinion on this topic. I'm a girl. The only time I've ever actually touched a rugby ball was one ill-advised winter's evening while at college, when I gate-crashed the ladies' rugby training and broke a nail. I was on the wing, for god's sake - I wasn't envisaging actually having to do anything. I thought it was the rugby equivalent of playing 'deep fielder' in rounders.

Anyway, it's my blog, I can say what I like. And, as it happens, I have been a fan of rugby since 1990 (ok, since I saw Rob Andrew on Question Of Sport, and fell in love *crosses self*). I've been on 3 British Lions' tours, the so-called 'Tour of Death' to NZ in '98, and many a home international. I was a hardened Sale fan for all the years they languished at the bottom of the Premiership, up until the point they stopped actually playing in Sale. Then they started to get good, damn their eyes.

And I started to think about this whole England world cup debacle. I can cope with England playing badly on the pitch - takes me right back to the bad old days at Sale. But playing badly AND behaving like the Manchester United youth team in Ayia Napa? That takes some doing. And then I read David Flatman's article in the Guardian on the subject, and it made me quite sad. Sad because I didn't totally agree with him, and I ALWAYS agree with him. He's erudite, funny, and sensible (not bad going for someone who's spent most of their adult life face down in the mud). He didn't particularly lay the finger of blame anywhere, but rather lamented the media-driven obsession with celebrity, and the way it has started to seep into the previously-fluffy world of rugby since the advent of professionalism.

Now, I don't really buy that. It has, ofcourse, but one inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the other, as football has found to its cost. You can't welcome the money flooding into the game with one hand, while trying to maintain the ethos of the good old days with the other. And where does the money come from, ultimately? The loyal rugby fan. Now, far from the loyal rugby fan being too bothered about what the Daily Mail says about Tindall's/Tuilagi's/Haskell's/Ashton's/Hartley's, etc. behaviour (small fry considering what once happened to the Calcutta Cup, or that taxi that Scott Gibbs nicked perhaps), under the microscope at the biggest, most media-savvy World Cup ever is not the place or time for it. If there ever was a time for it, I suspect it was circa 1989, and it is long gone.

I could over-look it if the team were running rings round the opposition in their matches. But they didn't. They looked like 14 strangers, plus St Jonny of Wilkinson, who I love dearly but praise the lord, there isn't a team from here to Timbuctoo that hasn't worked him out by now. Osama Bin Laden has more spring in his step.

I look at the dedication of someone like Sir Steve Redgrave, who I doubt had a drink for about 15 years, such was his determination to continuously be the best in the World, getting up at 5am a year before the Olympics to train at altitude on the freezing waters of some desolate mountain lake. And I read that Sam Warburton hasn't touched a drop since the end of the Six Nations, and I think, you know what? It's not that hard. It's surely not too much to ask that the players devote themselves body and soul to be the best in the World, at the very least, for the 8 weeks that they're away. I managed to stay away from alchohol for 9 whole months, it's really not that difficult (drink like a fish now, ofcourse, but that's neither here nor there). Scotland, of course, could live like Trappist monks from now till Lewis Hamilton gets Sports Personality of the Year, and they'd still be crap.

Arrows are inevitably being drawn in the direction of Martin Johnson, and not without provocation. From the man you expect to lay discipline down like Hannibal, to rule the players with a wrath to equal Sir Alex Ferguson's infamous 'hairdryer', comments like "Rugby player drinks beer: shock" do not really wash. It might not be a shock, but it also might not be advisable in a country where rugby is the national obsession, and players' every actions are studied, analysed and splashed across the front pages. Where the biggest event in the country's history is the 2011 World Cup final. Not the country's sporting history, note: it's actual history. Because rugby IS New Zealand, like no other country on earth.

Throughout the tournament, I began to see that Johnson isn't the demi-god I'd appointed him as. I'd been willing to overlook his dogged support of Steve Borthwick as captain, even though Borthwick is as much use in that role as a nylon tank. Capable player on his day, but a charismatic, inspiring captain he was not. And yet Johnson gave him way beyond the usual 'try-out' period, as if he was stubbornly trying to prove his point by sheer perseverance.

He seems to struggle to lose his playing loyalties in a way a less successful and conscientious man would not. Defending players from media accusations is one thing, but doggedly excusing their unacceptable behaviour is entirely another. Additionally, his continual advocacy of "a win's a win" above all else started alarm bells - surely at least aim to produce some entertaining, inventive play? Otherwise, really, what is the point? Aspiration to be the best should be tattooed on their souls, not aspiration to be ok. As Malcolm X once said, "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything" - mediocrity, as it turns out.

Not good enough. England - at least the hard-working, loyal rugby fan - expects the entertainment to be on the pitch, not off it. I'm not sure we can lay the blame for the implosion at the door of professionalism any more. I don't particularly remember an instanteous shift in the atmosphere of the English game the minute the gilded gates opened. It's more a culmination of many factors - previous successes at World Cups raising expectations, this being probably the first generation of rugby players who have never known the game as being amateur, and the accessibility of worldwide media within seconds from anywhere in the world, about things we really don't need to know but are bombarded with nonetheless.

I think there is a general feeling that your average rugby fan is slogging his or her guts out all week, working ridiculously long hours in a job that they probably don't like very much to earn a wage that just about keeps the wolf from the door for the next month, assuming they are lucky enough to have a job. Many of them have saved some of this hard-earned dough in order to travel a year and a half on an aeroplane to a country which looks like Wales, to watch '03 all over again. They hoped. And you watch these players, who are given the opportunity to represent their country on the world's stage, playing a sport that they presumably love otherwise they wouldn't be doing it, and getting paid very handsomely, thank you very much. You watch them amble round the pitch, and give penalties away left right and centre as though no-one has ever explained Southern Hemisphere refereeing to them, and you start to wonder. Then you read in every tabloid in the country about the dwarf-tossing, blonde-fondling, maid-harassing, ferry-jumping antics, and the continuous and repetitive excuses given by the manager who once you idolised as a human Hadrian's Wall, and you lose any respect that may have been dwindling in the bottom of your pint pot.

The killer-blow for me came when I read that Manu Tuilagi's 'ill-advised' (for want of anything that isn't a swear word) early swim off the Auckland ferry came on the return journey of a lovely jolly out to the island of Waiheke where they reportedly visited a vineyard. Well, I don't know about you, but I want my mildly-disgraced, rudderless-ship of a national side to be catching the next flight home after losing the quarter final to France, trudging through Heathrow looking bloody miserable, getting their heads down and getting back to work, not engaging in day-trips at my expense and having a 'bit of banter' (think again, Mr Youngs) in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Ahhhh! Lordy, that feels better. Nothing like a bit of a rant to clear the air. Now then, where's my Welsh phrase book? Diolch yn fawr, as we *ahem* say in Wales......

1 comment:

  1. This made me think. I'd felt a bit like Flatman to start off with and probably still do about the players to a degree. I think you were restrained with your ill-advised. But Johnson is a thorny issue. Stick or twist? Back or sack? Hold or... you get the picture. It's a gamble and perhaps it's time for someone new who can really take a group of decent players and add the backbone the Welsh (and Canadians) have shown...