Offside, 27 November
It's time to return from Planet Rugby.
Is rugby the new football?
The very British overreaction to England’s rugby World Cup victory is reminiscent of the national euphoria that has episodically attached itself to the English football team in recent years. But that’s where any comparisons end. When the feelgood mood abates, as it eventually will, rugby will revert to its bit-part role as a minor sport for braying toffs and sheep-shaggers. And, for the rest of us, it will be football as usual.
True, 14.5million British TV viewers tuned in to watch Jonny Wilkinson’s match-winning drop kick on Saturday. But while this was a big audience for rugby, it was relatively modest in comparison to other major sporting events. A much bigger audience – 23.9million to be exact – watched Britain’s Torvill and Dean claim ice-skating gold in the 1984 Winter Olympics. But who gives a monkey’s about ice-skating now? Nobody.
As I explained in last week’s column, most people who were cheering on England on Saturday neither follow rugby nor understand its rules (1). Hands up how many readers can explain why the referee awarded all those penalties against England in the second half? No, I thought not. We were all rugby fans for a day because we wanted to savour the reflected glory of a rare English sporting triumph. The fact that we defeated the Aussies in their own backyard made victory all the sweeter
I have no wish to belittle England’s achievement. It was A Big Thing in planet rugby. But, in case you hadn’t noticed, rugby is one of the smaller planets in the sporting universe. I mean, where were the Germans or the Brazilians? Surely no ‘world cup’ is complete without them. Yes, Italy and Argentina were represented, but how many Italians or Argentinians were even aware that there was a world cup going on? Not many I’d bet.
But of course these simple facts won’t stop us deluding ourselves about the historical significance of England’s victory. If losing all sense of perspective was an Olympic event then the Brits would win the gold medal every time. ‘37 years of hurt is over’, crowed the Sunday People (2). Hang on a minute – you can’t just move the proverbial goalposts of sporting failure like that. As far as I’m concerned our hurt is football-specific, and the pain clock is still ticking.
It has been suggested that England’s success will boost rugby’s popularity just as Italia ’90 sparked football’s renaissance. Wishful thinking. A recent MORI poll revealed that rugby is a sport in decline. Less than one fifth of the British population express an interest in rugby – down from a quarter in 1996 – and only four per cent of the population has ever played the game (3). Moreover, rugby is withering away at its grassroots. Fewer secondary-school children are playing rugby due to the lack of facilities and the fear of sport injury litigation. The number of active rugby clubs is also falling. No doubt we’ll be treated to interminable TV replays of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop kick but that, in itself, will not inspire many people to follow or start playing this frankly ugly and technically esoteric game.
One unpleasant side effect of the World Cup is the way that rugby has been held up as a model of good behaviour and sportsmanship in contrast to boorish football. ‘Rugby’s supporters…recall an earlier time, when Englishness stood for sportsmanship rather than hooliganism’, pontificated the Telegraph (4). ‘There was no diving, cheating, play-acting or arguing with the ref’, enthused the Sun, conveniently overlooking the punching, stamping and gouging: ‘Rugby has taught soccer a lesson in how to behave on and off the field.’ (5)
‘I have been impressed with the way the rugby union boys have conducted themselves, from the manager down’, said Charlton manager Alan Curbishley. ‘You don’t see anyone with their shirts off running around and you don’t see any diamond earrings’, he added in the style of Norman Tebbit.
Yes, it’s true that rugby’s posh fans are impeccably behaved and the players call the referee ‘sir’. If that’s how you like your sport, then Twickers is the place for you (in fact, please stay away from football altogether). Given the choice between polite, respectable, well-behaved rugby and football – with its flashy, diamond-earringed, referee-dissenting, injury-feigning, groupie-roasting, nightclub-brawling players and its drunken, foul-mouthed, rowdy fans – I’ll choose the kicking game every time.
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