Sport – at elite level or below – is a funny old game, isn’t it?
At its best it is probably one of the human race’s most life-enhancing and positive experiences – either to participate in or watch – and yet, after all the complexities of emotion and hype potentially involved in the anticipation, so often the actualité retains the capacity to confound, surprise, delight and astound … or indeed, quite the opposite.
Ah, but then again the glorious uncertainty of it all is part of the mystique and eternally beguiling aspect of this collective human endeavour.
Yesterday was a classic case in point for those of us confined – with either active intent and/or a slight sense of guilt – to sit in front of the television for most of the day rather than being out and about in the blazing sunshine of what was being billed as potentially the hottest late August Bank Holiday Weekend of them all.
It is at times like this that I do not envy the lot of sporting journalists.
Let us begin by considering the varying fortunes on display at the third Ashes Test match taking place at Headingley.
Up to the conclusion of Day One of said Test, the perceived narrative of the Series had seemed to have unfolded without complication.
The two teams (England and Australia) were simultaneously “nothing particularly special” and therefore pretty evenly matched, which in prospect had made the 2019 Ashes contest potentially worth watching anyway.
And yet both outfits had accompanying ‘baggage’ – for the Australians, the potential redemption of the “Sandpapergate” guilty men, and for the English, whether collectively they had what it took to switch from the white ball to the red ball game.
Add a touch of spice – which had arrived courtesy of the Second Test’s ‘duel’ between the brilliant batting of the fidgety Aussie Steve Smith and the revelatory speed and quality of England’s new passport-travelled paceman discovery Jofra Archer – and collectively we onlookers were settling in front of a potential Eiffel Tower-sized Guy Fawkes Night bonfire wanting nothing but a spark to go with its blue-touch paper (in a good way).
Day Two saw England go into bat. And then come out again (67 all out), with afterwards Australia then digging in once more for an intended crushing and insurmountable total.
And then the boys with the laptops in the media rooms (and deadlines) have to knock out 1,000 words – probably to be subbed down later to 650 by someone else back at HQ anyway.
England’s pathetic 67 all out, inevitably – which (naturally) also attracts columns’ worth of strident opinionated vitriol from well-respected former players. The Series is now (apparently) all over bar the shouting.
But then comes Day Three. The England bowlers up their game – the Aussies don’t make as much headway as they wished … and then comes the England second innings, a presumed folorn attempt to bat on for a week and hold out for at least an honourable draw in an overall defeat.
From previously having been hard at it all day, penning career obituaries for all England’s key players, our heroes of Fleet Street are suddenly required to reach for their well-thumbed volumes of collected Churchill WW2 speeches [Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, “We shall fight them on the beaches …” et al.], the better to describe and lionise England’s new situation of 203 runs to win with seven wickets in hand.
It’s enough to make a man turn to drink.
And thence to Twickenham and the England v Ireland Rugby World Cup “warm up” match.
Last weekend the Sunday papers were full of dissections by rugby scribes and pundits alike analysing the rise and fall of England head coach Eddie Jones as – maverick, irreverent and counter-intuitive to the last – he now pilots his team towards the end of their uneven journey from “phoenix rising from the ashes of Stuart Lancaster’s disastrous 2015 campaign”, to Six Nations tyros, to “chariots with wheels gradually falling off left, right and centre” and the now inevitable certain 2019 disaster to rank alongside Stuart Lancaster’s of four years ago.
By 6.00pm last night, after watching England dismantling and humiliating the much-vaunted Ireland squad of Kiwi (adopted Irish) hero Joe Schmidt with an eight-try 57-15 defeat, the only thought I was (and am today) prepared to commit to record is a reminder that all these pre-Rugby World Cup ‘friendly warm up games’ are meaningless.
Or rather, will be when the chips are down and the RWC proper begins with the group stage matches around the 20th of September.
As in an hour or two, when I go to collect my Sunday papers, I shall be preparing to be confronted with acres of newsprint building up England’s chances in Japan. And I shall read it all, without being remotely convinced.
Yes, okay – England smashed Ireland yesterday, but key elements of their defence were weak and/or lacking for both Irish tries and Ben Youngs, the first choice scrum half, had a ‘mare of a game, possibly the worst I’ve seen him play in an England shirt. It doesn’t bode well, chaps …
On yesterday’s evidence I just don’t see England going all the way.