Perfecting the art of losing ugly
Since their World Cup win in 2003, the England rugby team has become one of the dirtiest, most tedious in the world.
Why am I so fascinated by the downfall of English rugby union? Admittedly, I do watch a lot of sport, not least because I enjoy it when people manage to do something impressive at the highest level of competition. It’s even more pleasurable if they happen to do it on behalf of a team I support. Likewise, the embarrassing failure of the team I support is not something I relish.
But things are different when it comes to the current English rugby team. They have doomed themselves to such inevitable failure that their performance is for me, an England fan, more farce than sporting tragedy.
I certainly used to care. I vaguely remember the glory days at the dawn of this century: England’s annual domination of the Six Nations tournament, not to mention squeaking past Australia for the 2003 World Cup. It is often forgotten that it was a tournament that England, coming in on a hot winning streak, nearly lost. Generally under Clive Woodward’s management the team’s approach had not been particularly conservative. But under pressure in that tournament, England’s play tightened up and they were pressed hard by adventurous Samoan and Welsh sides.
So, true enough, England managed to ‘win ugly’ back then. But unfortunately it’s a model the management has decided to stick with ever since. And no doubt England fluking their way to the 2007 World Cup final has been taken as a further endorsement of their ‘win ugly’ ideology, rather than, say, a textbook example of the dead cat bounce.
Impressively, no one is playing the game quite as ugly as this current England team. Even sadder is the often-stated policy that a 3-0 win is preferable to a high-scoring loss. Well, duh! Unfortunately, it does not follow that playing ugly makes one more likely to win. The point is that if you play well, perhaps even beautifully, you are likely to score more points than you might by playing badly. Thanks to the laws of maths you are therefore more likely to win the game.
One probably ought to feel pity for Twickenham Man, no doubt cutting back on the prawn sandwiches as his asset-to-debt ratio looms ominously over his pocket book. And yet still he manages to stump up for his £80 ticket in misguided support of the Rugby Football Union (RFU). Surely the least he could expect is a basic level of professional competence?
But apparently not. Organisations rot from the top. The gentlemen in blazers at the RFU, without deigning to give their manager/possibly coach so much as a job description, also decided to hire someone with no prior coaching experience, let alone experience of winning anything from the dugout (though the domestic club league alone provides plenty of options). Yet Martin Johnson, the captain who led England to victory in 2003, took the job – an uncharacteristic moment of ill-judgement.
Yes, Johnson is a totemic, World Cup-winning captain. But it is doubtful that PR stunts are the best way to reorder the chaos that has characterised the post-2003 slump. Apparently the blazers at the top think a no-nonsense rugby man, and all-round good egg, can burst into the dressing room, knock some nearby heads together and let the team return to the field with the orc-like intensity of old.
There’s no getting around it, however: England are a failed experiment. At the moment they are averaging two yellow cards a match; that’s two players per game spending 10 minutes of match time relaxing in the ‘sin bin’. This is not particularly helpful. But then nor is the constant foul play carried out by the rest of the team and the resulting stream of penalty points donated to their opposition.
Look, the RFU’s apologists cry, we only lost to Ireland by a point last week and Wales didn’t hammer us the fortnight before. Their logic probably follows that if England just smarten up their discipline they could eke out a victory by a few points.
Except, of course, that completely overlooks the fact that England are cheating so blatantly they may as well be playing a different game. Yes, England aren’t losing as badly as they were last year to the admittedly superior teams from the Southern Hemisphere. Ought this to be taken as progress? England have been awkward to play against but it can’t be credited to any particular application of skill. Rather, they are violating so many rules that they are almost impossible to play against. If they deployed 16 (maybe 20) players they would also be difficult to beat. But, unfortunately for the boys in white, when trying to play a game both sides have to agree on various conventions beforehand. If they wanted to play while wearing bionic legs that would be totally awesome, but you’d have to arrange that before kick-off.
In fact, anyone who enjoys sport has to be glad that England are losing. Imagine if they had stolen that match against Ireland last Saturday, if they had limited the sin bins to just the one. Martin Johnson certainly thinks they could have won. But it would have rewarded a team that approached the match with purely negative intent. England have been out to destroy their opponents’ games and have made little effort to play their own.
I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t so tedious to watch. But the opposition can’t get the ball because England are illegally slowing it down and everyone’s just lying on the ground. Rugby is a spectacle when players are running at speed into space, using wit and imagination in how they play together, hopefully coupled with some aggressive defence. England’s matches at the moment are more akin to mud wrestling. Winning may be the point, but it is not everything.
You can’t get the result if you don’t put in the performance. So instead of bleating about the ref, and the team’s apparent ‘perception problem’, England should at least try to play the game. It is their job after all.
John Dennen is a journalist and the writer of a short film about Joe Frazier.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
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