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.


Jonny said...

I saw the head patting incident as well and am surprised the French guy didnt turn around and twat him.

I thought the move sarcastic and patronising rather than sympathetic, but great all the same.

It may have been different if the mistake had cost the French the game in the last minute, but in only the second minute I thought it a sign of gamesmanship, or whatever it's called.

I live down here in Sydney so havent been across the media frenzy of the past week leading up to the game, if indeed there has been one (I wont be surprised if you told me the England Estonia, Fat Frank saga got more coverage in the build up to the weekend) - all I know is it was called "le crunch", or something. Surely worthy of a sarcastic pat on the head?

Nice post as well LB. I always read this blog, but dont often comment. I'd be interested to see what others make of the gesture.

SwissToni said...

For what it's worth, I agree with Jonny on the head-patting thing. I thought he was taking the piss. Andrew Sheridan did make a point of heading to his sale team-mate (and icon of the tournament) Sebastian Chabal at the end of the game though. The big man was in tears, and the even bigger and stronger man took a moment to comfort him. It was a nice touch - very Andrew Flintoff.

I'm not going to get into a football vs rugby thing either, because I like both (although I was brought up watching and playing rugby).... but I've been having quite opposite thoughts to LB about the two games. Football is undoubtedly turned by the odd moment of brilliance, but I find large portions of games frequently quite boring and with nothing much happening. Goals are explosions of activity and can happen in the blink of an eye and against the run of play. Rugby to me is a little different. I like the way that a game of rugby is about the build up of pressure and the inexorable turning of the screw. Yes, you can get break-away tries, but you just as often get games like England's against Australia, where most of the damage is done by the pack and not by the backs with the ball in their hand. It's personal preference, of course, (and I have a pretty good grasp of the intricacies of the rules that I know can alienate other people. At heart football is much easier to grasp, and I think that's at the heart of it's global popularity as a game)....but I just love rugby and have been gripped by some of these games.

I don't see England as being like Greece, incidentally. This is a remarkable story, about a side who have got talent but who have been utterly lost for at least 3 years, but suddenly finding themselves and their form when it matters the most. There is talent in the England rugby team, and players who would light up any side in the world: Andrew Sheridan, Simon Shaw, Gomarsall, Sackey, Lewsey... and of course Jonny Wilkinson. The way they play rugby is not for everyone, but it's beautiful in its own way and in its efficacy. Rugby is not all about free-scoring try fests of running rugby, and would be a worse game if it was.

Nah. I've heard it said that this England side are like Germany in the football world cup.... somehow they keep putting in the penalties in the shoot-outs, and somehow they keep winning.

Will they win the final? I don't think so... but bloody hell, they've been magnificent so far.

It's a different game. Not a better game, but a different game.

I wish the football players would show the same level of respect to officials, mind you. And in such a thumpingly physical game, they make the divers in football look utterly ridiculous, don't they?


LB said...

Hmmm. Whether it was genuine or not (and I shall take the optimistic view that it was), the point I was making was that in football, an early score in a semi-final would have been greeted by some nonsensical chest-thumping crowd-baiting overcelebration.

I accept and appreciate ST's point of view about the rugby, but I am afraid I just don't see it. Watching backs belting the ball backwards and forwards to one another on Saturday night was akin to watching two opposing goalkeepers hoofing their kicks back and forth to one another whilst Kaka and Ronaldinho watched it sail over their heads.

"The way they not for everyone, but it is beautiful in its own way and its efficacy..." is surely exactly the same as Greece in 2004...!!!

SwissToni said...

England are defending world champions and are one of the traditional power-houses of the game, so whilst I see the comparison with Greece, I think it's off the mark.

And yes, I won't be so blinded as not to say that any rugby games are boring, and the kicking tennis is one of those things... they're playing cat and mouse over territory and possession, but often they're just missing touch. My favourite moment in the game on Saturday was when Mike Catt received the ball inside his own 22 (meaning he could kick it straight into touch rather than having to bounce it in). He looked up to check he had the time, composed himself and then missed touch by a mile. Clown!

I also find it easy to believe that many neutrals have found England's last two games - amazing wins both - as really quite tedious, made interesting only by the tension and the occasion. I disagree, but I can see it.


weenie said...

Like ST, I like both. However, whilst I follow club and country football, I only follow country rugby, ie England. Both sports have their moments of brilliance and individual flair, but both can also be boring, as with any team sport where the sides are evenly matched or playing defensively. Football could certainly learn more about respecting the ref's decisions.

Ben said...

Didn't see the incident in question so can't comment on that - but I do find it hard to understand why a sport in which eye-gouging and stamping are commonplace (if nevertheless illegal) should be held up as a model of gentlemanly competition.

That said, footballers could learn some humility, and how to show a bit more respect shown to officials.

Mosher said...

Respect for your opponents does make for a difference to the game in several ways. Looks at the way Newcastle regularly have flairs of brilliance (OK, OK... we used to) and beat the likes of ManU and Arsenal in the space of 2 weeks... and would then lose to all three relegated teams.

We gave respect to the better teams and upped our game against them. We didn't respect the lower ones, and suffered as a result.

OK, it's a different type of respect, but you get my point.

On other sports, look at the difference between boxing and muai thai (Thai boxing). Boing is just two guys with egos bigger than their biceps ranting on about how great they are and how much they'll make their opponent's momma cry when she has to wipe him up off the floor and dump him in a wheelchair for life.

Thai boxing is harder, faster, more skillful and - frankly - I'd not give much for Iron Mike's chances in a full contact match against a ranking Thai boxer. But the main difference is the huge amount of respect shown between opposing fighters.

I watched several matched in Hua Hin (east coast of Thailand) featuring fighters from 7 (yes 7) years of age up to late teens. In all cass, respect was shown to opponents before and after the bouts, even between rounds. One kid who was soundly whupped went as far as to get down on his knees and bow his head to the mat in deference of his opponent. No sarcasm - genuine respect.