Trying is easy

Rugby union is England's methadone football, a substitute for our inability to get our fix of the real thing.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • 1972 and all that

What with the England team having reached the final of the Rugby World Cup, everyone here seems to be of the opinion that the tournament has been a roaring success – and most notably, that it has generated interest in the game back in Blighty. You can tell the media are getting excited because they have started to make reference to that dreaded phrase – nineteen-s*xty-s*x. According to the papers and television pundits, if we win on Saturday we can lay to rest the ghost of that year, able once again to hold high our collective sporting head and pronounce: we are the best.

Except that we needn’t look back that far for a world cup triumph. In 1972 Great Britain returned home heroes from France, having seen off the host nation and Australia and New Zealand, to win the Rugby League World Cup. So why has its glorious triumph been lost in the sands of time? It’s pretty obvious really: rugby league is not a national sport in Britain, and hardly an international game either. Indeed, back in 1972 the three teams that Britain overcame to lift the trophy were the only other teams in the entire competition.

Since then, rugby league world cups have hardly made the game look respectable, what with wildly varying numbers of teams being invited to compete in tournaments held at irregular time intervals; sometimes at a host nation and sometimes not; with our lads sometimes playing as Great Britain and at other occasions turning out as England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And seeing the likes of Lebanon and Russia in the last tournament in 2000 really brought the tournament into disrepute. If Bhutan or Vatican City had possessed pub teams they might have been invited too. It looked desperate.

The present rugby union tournament may resemble a genuinely international affair on paper, but the thrashings inflicted on the likes of Uruguay, Georgia and Namibia do give the impression that many sides were invited just to make up the numbers. There were many other also-rans of slightly higher calibre, but to be honest, the winner of this tournament was always going to be England, France, the Kiwis or the Aussies. In other words, it was a competition for four teams.

I do want England/Jonny Wilkinson to win this Saturday morning, if only to help banish forever the mind-numbing, accursed, constant harking back to nineteen-s*xty-s*x. But it’s not going to happen, because rugby union is merely our methadone soccer, a substitute for our inability to get our fix of the real thing. If England wins the proper world cup in three years time (yeah, like, whatever), this Saturday’s result, whatever the outcome, will be swiftly forgotten.

And, especially with England, rugby union is not that exciting a game anyway. If you want to see a really enthralling encounter, tune in Saturday night to watch Great Britain take on the Aussies in the third Test series, for some fast-moving, head-crunching, clothes-lining, wriggling-your-bum-about-on-the-turf, hard-core rugby league action.

  • Killing people isn’t wrong

The shadow home secretary David Davis said last week that we should bring back capital punishment. Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten said that this is an ‘obscene’ suggestion; and there have been many concurring voices inside and outside parliament, saying that no civilised country in the twenty-first century should practise this barbaric ritual, etc, etc.

The debate on the death penalty raises more questions than it answers. Some consider it abhorrent that the state should have the power to take life and death. Yet the state legitimises killing in other spheres. What else were our troops doing in Iraq earlier this year but killing other people?

Elsewhere, the state does plenty of things which, undertaken by a civilian, would be regarded as a crime. If someone comes to your house and demands money, and threatens you if you do not give it to him, he is an extortionist or protection racketeer. When someone who works for the state carries out the same action, he is called a taxman. If someone takes someone and holds him against his will, it is called kidnapping. When someone working for the state does the same, he is called a prison warder.

In our civilised, twenty-first century country, many nasty things are deemed perfectly acceptable, depending on who is doing it. The question is of context, legitimacy and the power we surrender to the state. Talk about what is ‘barbaric’ is irrelevant. Killing people isn’t wrong; only murder is.

  • Capital punishment (part two)

Speaking of capital punishment, the unfortunate residents of London are this week being subjected not only to the visit of George W. Bush, but also the legions of Not In My Namers who today descended on the city to protest against the US president. Many of them consider the USA to be the most evil country in the world. Yet where were these multitudes when the president of China Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the UK in 1999? Here was the head of a government that, according Amnesty International, executes up to 6000 of its citizens each year (last year, the equivalent figure for the USA was 71). Is not this ‘barbaric’?

Still, while some of them are simply anti-American airheads, many are not, which pro-Bush supporters should keep in mind. It is no good to dismiss one’s critics on the ground that he or she is ‘anti-American’. This is a cheap defence, akin to the charge levelled by some Israelis – most recently, Ariel Sharon – that any criticism of the Israeli state’s behaviour is just anti-Semitic. Again, sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it is not.

At the end of the day, it’s irrelevant too. Don’t question your opponent’s motives; answer his questions.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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