With the rest of the family – settled in for a weekend-fest of the football World Cup only emerging from the drawing-room for meals or comfort breaks – I was able to follow the fortunes of England rugby at my leisure in the study/snug.
It may have escaped your notice but the England rugby squad have been suffering a few problems over the past nine months. They have slipped from being supposed leading Rugby World Cup contenders next year to fifth place in the Six Nations tournament, this during the course of what is now a five match (six if you count the humiliation of a nine-try drubbing by the Barbarians in a non-cap Twickenham game) losing streak after a second successive loss at altitude to a transitional South African team.
The ongoing fall-out is currently being writ large across the sports pages.
I’m genuinely wishing Gareth Southgate and his charges every success in their Russian quest which opens later today but the parallels between England’s historical football woes in major tournaments and their rugby counterparts’ current travails are there for all to see.
In advance of a major tournament, match or tour – however good the advance training, omens and indeed the scale of good wishes following you around – you are only every one slip from disaster and ignominy.
In the next game you play.
Every long-suffering English sports fan can empathise with John Cleese’s famous quote [in character as the hapless headmaster Brian Stimpson in the 1986 comedy movie Clockwise written by Michael Frayn] “It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I cannot stand …” and perhaps our rugby supporters can be forgiven for the combination of disbelief and now puzzlement to which they’ve been increasingly prey since the turn of the year.
No doubt the sports correspondents of the British media – whose entrenched role as right-on cheerleaders in advance of tournaments (and/or when things are generally going well) traditionally switches overnight to chief mud-throwers when disaster inevitably strikes – has something to do with it.
There’s a desperately-thin dividing line between being a team’s biggest ego-boosters – hob-knobbing in jocular fashion with the coaching staff, players and even press officers in arranging interviews and feature articles or video coverage in the good times – and then being their biggest critics (deploying the excuse that they’re only asking the questions the public want to have answered) when the wheels fall off the juggernaut … but that’s the one that reporters and analysts have to cross whenever ‘negatives’, e.g. bad results and/or some scandal or another, require.
Both sides know this of course. And yet, whenever the solid hits the fans, one can understand the sense of betrayal felt by the team as their former ‘friends’ suddenly turn into rabid ‘enemies’, seemingly at the drop of a hat (or should that be ‘following any humiliating loss’?).
Further, supporters and members of the general public can often be forgiven for feeling a subtle degree of unease at the moral ambiguities underpinning the activities of all those who choose to join the Fourth Estate, even perhaps for some extending to revulsion (“Not a job I could possibly do!”).
Take the England rugby team’s South African tour.
In every match preview the punditry features “things that the team have got to major on, or those that went wrong last time and need to be sorted” followed by a discussion as to how (and who within the team) this will be done. All very neutral and/or positive in tone.
At Ellis Park they virtually blew the Springboks away, running out to a 20-3 lead.
In Bloemfontein they scored two excellent tries in the first ten minutes (then 12-0 ahead) … but then never troubled the scoreboard again and ended the match in total disarray.
As a result in the commentary box the British rugby reporters were in ‘cheerleader’ mode for most of the first half of both games. Then, as the tide of fortune shifted South Africa’s way through pressure, heavy duty forward play plus increasing England technical mistakes and ill-discipline, the ‘vultures of death’ began hovering.
Admittedly, there is no way round the glaringly obvious. Going 0-2 down in a three-match series you had advance ambitions to win 3-0 is a comparative catastrophe.
By the time viewers were redirected to the studio after both games were over, pundit/analysts Will Greenwood and Sir Clive Woodward were ripping into Eddie Jones and the England players as if there was no tomorrow, deploying the benefit of hindsight without the slightest irony and virtually calling for heads to roll before the end of the programme.
France had beaten New Zealand 16-7 in their semi-final whilst England had pipped South Africa 32-31.
Without being unduly critical, the England Under-20’s team’s issues were unerringly similar to those of their grown-up seniors in South Africa. They were dominated up front, seemed tactically naïve and were hampered by their persistent ill-discipline.
France were massive and won deservedly through forward power and by a margin that did not flatter them. On this evidence, after four years of relative downturn at international level, France is on-course for major success in a year or two provided that this crop of Under-20s (their first ever winners of the Junior World Cup) ‘train on’. Watch out for the likes of Woki (flanker), Joseph (Number 8, still only 17!) and Bamba (prop).
The only stand-out England player in terms of potential future international stardom was winger Jordan Olowofela of Leicester Tigers, though captain Ben Curry (twin brother of current England 7 Tom) also looked to the manner born.