There are other people, you know

Along comes the third autumn test, this time England versus New Zealand, and I’m reminded why I find fair-weather supporters irksome. When I say ‘fair-weather’ I don’t mean clement weather, and when I say ‘supporters’ I don’t mean those who watch from the stands on a wet and windy afternoon – I’m not that hardy; rather I mean those who watch on television.

No, I refer to the blokes who only seem interested in the sport when the team is doing well, which should probably be known as Reflected Glory Syndrome, or something like it. The sport in question is rugby, by the way, if that wasn’t clear.

Along I popped, then, to the pub – I do not have Sky TV – and I could barely move for the bodies, most of whom were students, cluttering up my television room. That’s right, so uncluttered is the place usually that I see it as my alternate TV room. It’s been fine the last two weeks. I could even make it to the bar for a packet of peanuts. But it was definitely not fine this week.

They all turned up, practically every student in the city, barging and putting their heads right in front of the screen, seemingly oblivious to the presence of anyone else who might want to watch the game. It’s not on, really it isn’t.

The problem, however, is not that they were there. I welcome genuine supporters. The problem is that half this lot didn’t seem all that genuine. They only seemed to have turned up because the English were on a bit of a roll and looked as if they might be able to beat New Zealand again (although they did not). And because they’re fair-weather supporters they didn’t mind obscuring my view of the screen, which, of course, is the thing I find irksome.

There’s a good time and a bad time to win your first sporting cap

Seeing new players emerge onto the sporting scene is one of the great delights of competitive sport. It’s almost as pleasing as watching seasoned professionals performing at the peak of their powers (which reputedly occurs at around the age of twenty-six); or hanging on beyond their pensionable age through sheer brilliance, force of will and managerial loyalty.

Sometimes the arrival of new players is the consequence of panic. Managers, coaches and selectors, fearing the sack or the harsh side of their supporters’ tongues, look for solutions in new faces. The trouble is, this approach doesn’t usually work unless it is part of a wider, more-considered strategy. Fergie’s kids may have been kids, but they were the product of a carefully-considered youth strategy.

I remember the dread days of English cricket in the 1990s. New faces seemed to appear as often as they did on that eponymous show of the 1970s; and if they failed, they would get the same cruel treatment from those infinite legions of judges ready to cut them down. A player (or a comedian) might achieve fame for their allotted fifteen minutes, then be cast back into their obscurity and only reappear, if unlucky, a couple of decades later in a game of Trivial Pursuit (this also applies to the comedian).

There were reasons enough to panic in those days: not least the West Indian executioners masquerading as bowlers; though it’s probably more accurate to call it fear. The real panic was with the selectors. They struggled to find an eleven with which they were happy, and only later realised that a debutant was as likely to fail as succeed. Though that was the era, was it not? And the lack of team continuity – and confidence in selection – perhaps contributed to a poorer win-loss ratio.

It’s a statement of the obvious that young, inexperienced players are more likely to succeed if they debut in a settled side. Andrew Strauss’ first test match perhaps illustrates the point: a century at Lords against New Zealand in 2004. He might have got off to this flying start anyway (and average just over sixty in his first year), but the settled nature of the team helped. Trescothick, Vaughan, Flintoff, Hoggard and Harmison formed the backbone of a side on the up; and a year later they won the Ashes in that great summer, of which I remember escaping from the office into the sun and watching the drama unfold in the nearest establishment possessing a television, and then later on the day of celebration at Trafalgar Square to witness the intoxicated victors falling out of their bus.

We forgive winners, I’ve noticed that. Six years after the 2005 Ashes, the English rugby team got up to their own mischief during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. But there was one key difference. They didn’t play well. Vaughan and Flintoff won, while Tindall and Tuilagi lost – simple.

Between getting knocked out of the 1999 World Cup and winning the competition in 2003, the England rugby team possessed a winning culture. Against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, they won ten out of twelve games, which is no easy task. At that time, players emerged into a team imbued with confidence and true ability, each adding something new rather than merely trying to arrest the decline. Okay, so a review of the debut list shows quite a few forgettable names; but each player who broke into the side for a permanent run, rather than so Clive Woodward (not yet knighted) could ‘take a look,’ were genuine talents. Ben Cohen, Mike Tindall, Iain Balshaw (what could have been had injury not blighted him!), Jason Robinson and Steve Thompson all made the team better for their inclusion.

Sporting fortunes rise and fall: Always. After 2003 and 2005, the rugby players and cricketers alike fell off quite drastically. But the cricketers were soon back, even reaching number one in the ICC rankings and winning the two most recent Ashes series. There is a buoyancy to the side, and the expectation is that each new player will succeed rather than fail as they did in earlier eras. Take Anderson, Broad, Swann, Cook and Trott: they all improved the side and they all succeeded almost immediately. One might mention Anderson’s pre-2005 Ashes debut, but he was only kept out of the side by the great quartet of Flintoff, Hoggard, Harmison and Jones. That’s no insult.

We are currently in the throes of the Autumn Internationals. England has already played Australia and Argentina, winning both quite comfortably, and there is a sense that a player will now only force their way into the side if they are going to improve things, rather than because there is no other option. That’s where we want to be, and it doesn’t really matter what happens against New Zealand at the weekend.

I don’t expect England to win the game, although they might, and despite last year’s unexpected triumph; the All Blacks won’t have forgotten that one, and they’ve not lost a single game since. No, the mood is buoyant and the supporters can tell Lancaster and this crop of players might be onto something. Which makes it all the more exciting to see new players pulling on the shirt for the first time: because to get into this side, they really do have to be pretty good.

The English/British national anthem problem

The sporting calendar never ends; it’s like the very seasons; round and round it goes. No sooner is the whistle blown on one fixture, then along comes another, whistles blowing forever – except cricket, of course, when a bell is preferred. Perhaps it’s the opportunity for redemption next time – defeat into victory – that keeps the whole thing going? We are now into the autumn rugby internationals, and redemption for one team or the other is in the air. Everyone with even the remotest interest in the game is excited by the drama.

But one aspect of the game sits uncomfortably, with me at least: the anthems. It’s not that I don’t like them; they’re fine, and although some are little more than a dirge, others are magnificent and stirring. It’s just that no sooner do the English start singing God Save The Queen at an English sporting event, then someone says they really ought to sing something else, something applicable to only England.

The problem seems to be that England is not the same thing as Britain, and singing the national anthem merely antagonises the Welsh and the Scots. Well, that’s obvious; but what about the history of this state of affairs? Just why do the English sing the British national anthem while the Welsh and Scottish bellow Land of My Fathers and Flower of Scotland at anyone and everyone?

There must be a reason. Think about it and it just doesn’t make sense. I suppose the explanation we most readily grasp is the stereotypical arrogance and bloody-mindedness of the English; they’ll take any excuse to lord it over their ‘dominions’ in the rest of the British Isles, the English will. After all, we know full well that Britain is really the English Empire, don’t we?

This is a logical assumption, even I would admit. I’m English, I’m British, and I’m conservative-minded and patriotic in the old, disreputable sense of thinking nationality is not something of which we should be ashamed; I also happen to think nationality and nationhood are vitally important if peace and the rule of law are to endure in these islands, but that’s another discussion.

As such, it is perfectly acceptable to sing God Save The Queen. Yet it has often occurred to me that, by singing the British national anthem at English events while the Welsh and the Scots sing something else, we live up to the stereotype a little too readily and a little too belligerently. Wouldn’t it be better, all round, if we sang a song or a hymn that distinguishes England from Britain? That way, the national anthem might regain its rightful place in the affection of all Britons.

This was my thinking, anyway; not unlike the thinking of many other Englishmen, I’m sure. Until, that is, I discovered a typically excellent piece by Allan Massie, the great Anglo-Scottish man of letters, in which he recounted a bit of the history of national anthems at sporting events, specifically those of rugby.

At about the time the author was, himself, running around in short trousers, only one anthem was played at rugby internationals involving England, Wales and Scotland, and that was God Save The Queen. Moreover, it was played ‘not to inspire the troops, but as a mark of respect to the monarch.’ Indeed, this was the way of it back then; the national anthem was also played in theatres and cinemas.

But not now. We are above such things. We have, on the whole, rejected petty nationalism and freed ourselves from subservience to ancient traditions; these things only survive where the basest of our race gather: such as sporting events and the Last Night of the Proms. To my bemusement, Scottish nationalism is in a very different and much more acceptable category to British or English nationalism – a point I’ve yet to work through fully.

So, what happened? Why and how did things change? Why did two sizeable chunks of Our Island reject the anthem that represents us all?

Mr. Massie writes that ‘the Welsh were the first to break ranks when they decided that kicking off with Land of My Fathers would have their players’ hearts swelling with patriotic fervour.’ Trust the Welsh to bash the English first! Still, I suppose this attitude has historical pedigree. It’s Owen Glendower all over again.

Surprisingly the Scots were slower to follow suit, perhaps because Mr. Massie is correct in thinking they are at heart ‘sternly conservative,’ and perhaps because the problem Scots have with big-C Conservatism is its association with the English rather than anything intrinsic to its political and cultural outlook. While the average Englishman might not immediately recognise this picture, he will more readily appreciate the growth of Scottish nationalism in the seventies and anti-Thatcher sentiment in the eighties, both of which led to the booing of the national anthem at Murrayfield. Many Scots resented the then-Conservative Prime Minister, as we know, but booing the national anthem must have upset a good many other Scots quite happy with being Scottish, British and Monarchist.

The real history, therefore, suggests something a little different to the perception of that history. The convention, with which all Home Nations seemed happy, was for the British to sing God Save The Queen as a mark of respect for their Sovereign and because they were British, albeit Welsh, Scottish and English variants thereof. The problem was caused not by something active done by the English, but by their passive response to the Welsh and the Scots deciding to break with convention without taking the English with them.

Would it have been so hard to gather round a table, preferably in some wood-panelled pub in a glen or a valley over a pint or a dram, and decide on adopting individual Home-Nation anthems simultaneously? Would that have been so difficult? We might have avoided the resentment some now feel at perceived ‘English arrogance’ and the perceived belief that ‘there is no distinction [in the eyes of the English, we presume] to be made between England and the United kingdom.’

But we are where we are, and the present situation is certainly untidy, and people will continue to call for the English to stop singing God Save The Queen when they have their exclusively English hats on. And you know what: I think I might be one of them. The English may not have caused the predicament (despite the folk-view being that they did, because, well, the English…), but the predicament exists; and it seems that if the anthems are no longer sung as a mark of respect for our Sovereign, but as a means to get our competitive juices flowing before the game, then perhaps we really should have an English anthem.

I know it’s not relevant during the autumn internationals, but if we do go down this route, singing Home-Nation anthems before kick off, would it be outrageous to suggest that, at the end of each game between Wales, Scotland and England during their next encounters, we sing God Save The Queen? Perhaps it might even usher in a new era of mutual respect, while at the same time reminding ourselves that we are all still British and we all still share the same Monarch. With the Scottish referendum soon upon us, we might just need it.

While watching the rugby

I’m just watching the BBC3 rugby highlights of the game today between England and Australia; and just after Chris Robshaw scored that snaffling try to bring England level with Australia, 13-13, up popped a rather odd-looking camera image. No, it was nothing like that. Rather it was a bit like that much overrated Blair Witch movie in which the producers saved a lot of money by not employing cameramen and instead making the actors shoot all the footage. It was, apparently, something called: Ref-Cam. Yes, they’ve (Sky Sports, I presume, as they broadcast the game live) gone and put a camera on the referee’s head. I’m just trying to get a proper look at it, but can’t quite make it out.  He’s got his back to me, so it’s difficult. Ah, there it is: a RoboCop device sitting at the top of his chest, not on his head. How excellent is that?

Forgotten match report: 1st Test, Australia vs Lions (21-23)

It’s sometimes strange to come across notes you’ve written in the past and forgotten about. They can seem both familiar and unfamiliar, as if you might have penned them but some of the phrasing suggests it equally possible you did not. Anyway, these are the notes, brushed up a little, from the first test between Australia and the Lions on 22 June 2013, just one of the glorious summer sporting days we’ve had this year.

It was an edgy start to the game, as one might expect for the first proper encounter of such an eagerly anticipated tour. Just think: the Lions wait four years, which is bad enough, but the Aussies (not to mention the All Blacks and Boks) wait twelve years for these games. There’s been chat that Lions tours are anachronistic and in danger of being dumped from the programme thanks to professionalism, but I see no evidence just yet.

The Lions were ponderous in their play, despite good possession. Australia started more effectively and scored the first try, albeit from the breakdown of a strongish Lions move. Genia tapped a penalty in his 22, ran up the pitch and kicked for Folau to chase and score. Not a bad start, considering the run of play, but Australia would have made an even better start had O’Connor not missed his kicks. As it was, they scored first, so they were pretty happy.

Hemispherical differences in law interpretation stifled the Lions (or are they rules? Cricket has laws, I know that.), especially when contesting the ball in the tackle area. The chaps from the windswept Britannic islands seem to prefer physical contest, the Aussies quick attacking ball. Who is right? Both. That’s the thing about touring: adapting to different playing cultures, even though professionalism has brought with it homogenisation.

Fortunately for the Lions, North responded with his own magic, catching an Australian kick in his own half and avoiding four tackles to score in the corner. He might have scored again had it not been for an elbow in touch. As it was, the Lions went 13-12 up at half time because of better kicking from the anvil-booted Halfpenny, despite a second Australian try.

One of the things that strikes about the Lions is their solidity. Their physical presence is formidable, not least with giants in positions usually taken by tiddlers: Phillips, at No.9, is over six feet, and North, on the wing, has girders for thighs. And the rest of the backs are fairly on the large side, too. Though the Lions were not as direct as their size might have suggested. Gatland likes his teams large, but not bovine.

In the second half Cuthbert crossed the line on forty-eight minutes. From good line-out possession he came off his wing and ran through a big hole that had emerged in the middle of the pitch. But great as it was to see a second try, there was something odd about it. I don’t know if it was the screen on which I was watching the game, but it looked slow. Yet only as slow as a cold knife through butter, and the Lions looked happier.

It didn’t last though; kicking took over. With the score at 20-15, the Lions were in a tricky stretch. Then it went to 20-18. On sixty-five minutes Halfpenny kicked another one, only for Beale to take the score to 23-21 on sixty-eight minutes. But there it stayed. With six minutes left on the clock, Beale missed a penalty. Oops!

As it happened, the Lions also missed an opportunity a few minutes later, on a scrum under the posts. The converse of an opportunity missed is an opportunity taken. It was an irony that the Lions gave a penalty on their scrum on the wet, slippery ground, only for Beale to slip taking the penalty. Opportunity missed. And harsh. That’s the way, I suppose.

England gone and beat the All Blacks.

This is what stands out to me from the game today:

  • Ashton has no intention of giving up his try-dive. It doesn’t seem to matter what anyone says, he just grins at the person raising the issue (assuming that it is an issue) and goes and does exactly the same again next time. And if there was a time for him to change his ways, or moderate his ego, then playing against the All Blacks was surely the time. But no, it would seem that try-dives are here to stay. One day he’ll drop one in an international, but, until then, we will have to accept that’s the way he mauls.
  • The squad approach seems to be working. Gone are the days of picking your best Fifteen and only changing when someone gets injured or puts in a gutter performance. Youngs or Care at Scrum Half, Farrell or Flood at Fly Half, they all need to be ready to play in this ultra-physical era. And the absence of a secure place in the team doesn’t seem to affect them badly. In fact, it has the effect of galvanising them into greater efforts for the next game, unlike in football. Why that might be, I don’t know. But the squad ethos being forged by Lancaster is one of the real plus points of English rugby at the moment.
  • Robshaw is not a dud captain; quite the opposite. He was criticised (fair enough) for his decision-making against Australia last week, but no such error this week. He’s learnt to kick and take the points when on offer, which is essential at international level. And his main strength as a captain is his willingness to put himself about. Leading by example is a cliché in most circumstances, but it remains apt in this most attritional of sports. Time and again he carried the ball and made the tackles. More and more he looks like a leader on the pitch, making it his personal responsibility to get things done. That’s what Dalaglio and Johnson both did, and that’s why they were great forwards and leaders on the pitch. Robshaw’s the closest (although still someway behind) to these two since that generation retired.
  • Tuilagi is a wrecking ball. Make that a ball of gristle. He doesn’t have the flair of a Guscott, but I’m not entirely sure that type of player can flourish in this era. Players are so strong now and defences so tight, that centres need the bulk to just stay in the game. It would be nice to see a bit more intuition, but that’s being picky. Give him the ball and he rarely loses it in contact, and gets over the gain line as frequently as any forward, perhaps more so. Great intercept for his try.
  • The All Blacks are still awesome. They might have lost 38-20 (Yep! Didn’t I mention that?), but they’re still great. Twenty games unbeaten. It had to end sometime, so why not England at Twickenham. For a moment, when they clawed the score back to 15-14, it seemed they had just been playing about, such was the frenzy of their play. And even in the last phases (admittedly when England were reduced to 14 men after a Vunipola infringement born more of naivety than anything else), the All Blacks still kept coming.
  • And England won. Yep. Against expectation. Not since 2003, apparently. And England’s biggest winning margin ever. That is all.