• Why The Despair?

    The despair felt at England’s premature departure from the Rugby World Cup is understandable, but also informative. It tells us something significant about the problems facing English rugby, and perhaps English sport more generally.

    No one doubts that the “pool of death” was always going to pose a major challenge to the England team. That problem was of course compounded by the last-minute loss to Wales – and suddenly, the match against Australia assumed huge importance.

    The reaction of the England team was everything that the Australian coach, Michael Cheika, could have hoped for. Never mind that England had home advantage, that the Wallabies had been beaten by England in four of their last five meetings, that Australia’s last match against a tier-one nation had been a 41-13 loss to New Zealand, and that their two opening World Cup matches – while producing decisive wins – had been against less challenging sides.

    The language of England rugby was all about backs to the wall and battening down the hatches. The Wallabies had suddenly assumed superhuman proportions. More than most, the Australians are a confidence team; they were no doubt delighted to see England talk themselves into the role of underdogs.

    The match bore out all of these dread premonitions. The Wallabies struck a purple patch – something they often do but usually can’t sustain – and England duly fulfilled their prescribed role as ill-fated and inevitable losers.

    But let us not forget that, with 10 minutes to go, England had fought back to be just one score behind.  It was the sending off that tipped the scales and allowed the score to blow out in the last minutes.  But England have not become no-hopers and the Australians world- beaters in the course of a single match. If England played Australia in another ten matches in the next few weeks, it is unlikely that they would be outplayed again so comprehensively.

    It is not so much the fact of the loss, with all its unfortunate consequences for English rugby, but the reaction to it that is revealing. The depth of the despair reflects the fact that English fans have been fed an illusion for years – that England would surf through to a Twickenham final where home advantage would carry them to victory – probably against the All Blacks – on the strains of “Swing Low”.

    It is the creators of that illusion who must take the real responsibility for English despair. In the professional era, sport – as we know – is big business. Its profitability, especially in the more populous countries, depends on attracting and retaining mass audiences, an undertaking in which the media are both major players and beneficiaries.

    English football is perhaps the prime example of how the media set out to dramatise and romanticise every aspect of the game. The leading players become larger-than-life figures, their exploits endlessly celebrated. The fans become accustomed to a diet of manufactured drama and excitement – and demand nothing less.

    The syndrome is on its way to infecting other sports, and English rugby – sadly – is in the process of succumbing as well. Almost instinctively, it seems, English rugby commentators feel that simply acknowledging a good piece of play by England is not enough; viewers expect to hear something of the superlative if it is to be given its due.

    A classic instance occurred midway through the first half of the England/Wales World Cup match. The Welsh kicked deep into the English half, the English player gathering the ball – Jonny May – was trapped on his line but managed to get the ball to Mike Brown, who then cleared the danger with a long touch-finder.

    It was a competent piece of defence. The television commentator, however, could not contain himself. “There is no other player in the world,” he proclaimed, in a state of high excitement, “who could have done that!” At that point, millions of non-English viewers around the world must have said to themselves and each other – “What?”

    So, what is the relevance of all this to the English defeat? The problem is that, as the media and the fans egg each other on and feed off each other, the sport is played in an increasingly unreal context. The English fan is encouraged to live in a kind of fantasy land, in which superhuman heroes will achieve great feats. Completely unrealistic outcomes are routinely expected.

    The cult of the hero had a possibly decisive impact on the critical closing moments of the England/Wales match. Chris Robshaw’s decision to kick for the corner rather than attempt a penalty goal was a brave and justifiable gamble.

    Where the gamble went wrong, however, was when the five-metre lineout was taken. For the first time in the match, Robshaw called the lineout throw to himself, at number two in the line. That short throw made it almost inevitable that, even when the ball was taken cleanly, it would be immediately driven into touch and the game would be lost.

    Why did he do it? Because the Twickenham crowd demanded a hero, and he saw himself as Captain Marvel. Fantasy is not a good basis for sporting performance – or for judging the outcomes.

    Bryan Gould

    4 October 2015