Sunday, October 14, 2007
Wayne Rooney for England (v Estonia), 13 October 2007
Despite it's "rugby football" name, this place does not concern itself with matters of the oval ball. Indeed, rugby is one of the few sports I can't get that excited about, save for those few matches in which I can be nationalistic and partisan about the result. From the photo you will notice that last night was one of those such nights - bear in mind this was supposed to be someone's wedding reception...
Many appreciate rugby's nuances and tactics, but I can't get that excited about a disciplined and controlled team performance. I know that rugby has its moments of individual brilliance, but I find England's progress towards the World Cup Final akin to that of the Greece team in Euro 2004. Whilst one can begrudgingly admire the team ethic and tactics, that method is far less successful in football. Football is much more defined by individual brilliance and tactics - a last-ditch tackle, exquisite pass, brilliant save or wondergoal. That's not to say that rugby is bereft of such moments - but these moments are generally few and far between in an eighty minute match rather than football in which moments of great play can be much more commonplace.
It's clearly possible to like both, and I don't want to turn this into a football versus rugby debate. The reason I mention it at all is for a tiny moment in last night's semi-final that superbly defined the difference between the two sports and the manner and spirit in which they are contested.
Less than ninety seconds into the match, a long punt into the corner was chased back by French full back Damien Traille. In a split second he misjudged the bounce of the ball, and an opportunist Josh Lewsey pounced on the loose ball and forced himself over the line for a try.
A score. Within the first two minutes of the World Cup Semi-Final. A priceless and ultimately critical 5-0 lead.
Rather than his football counterparts, who would have wheeled around towards their supporters in a manner of unbridled chest-thumping superiority (no doubt with their shirts over their heads) Lewsey did something entirely different. Immediately, he turned to the French player, prostrate on the ground in dismay at his error, bent down and almost imperceptibly patted him on the head.
Blink, and you'd have missed it, but there in that gesture was my absolute highlight of the entire Rugby World Cup tournament. A small moment of grace which acknowledges that our opponents are human and fallible and that without them there wouldn't be much of a game. There by the grace of God go I.
It reminded me of the famous moment at the end of the epic Ashes test at Edgbaston in 2005. On that sunny Sunday morning, the Australian last wicket pairing of Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz had amazingly put themselves in a position where they were moving inexorably towards a match winning partnership. Then, in the nick of time, Kasprowicz gloved (via the bat first, as it turned out) a Steve Harmison delivery to wicket-keeper Geraint Jones to give England a two run victory in one of the closest Test matches in history.
Winning such an incredible match by the tiniest of margins sent the England fans into a frenzy. But, in the same manner as Lewsey, England's talismanic all-rounder Andrew Flintoff didn't immediately over-celebrate the victory, whooping and hollering. Instead, he turned to the stranded Brett Lee at the other end of the pitch and offered the Australian batsman some words of comfort.
In relative terms, I suppose it would have been like the England football side winning a World Cup semi-final on penalty kicks and Wayne Rooney's first reaction being to commiserate the opposition goalkeeper. Just wouldn't happen, would it?
I'm not holding rugby and cricket as majestic examples of the great spirit in which sport is played. This lazy and oversimplistic attitude is used by some and it is clearly flawed. Both sports have problems with indiscipline, scandal and cheating. The difference is clear however - the appreciation of your opponents as a crucial part of the game (and ultimately of your own success) has largely disappeared from football. I know that this is a reason that some have turned their back on football as they prefer the more gentlemanly and fair-spirited way in which other sports are played. I can't get that excited about rugby (ask me at 9pm next Saturday, though), but football could learn some valuable lessons from it, that much is certain.