Robin Scott-Elliot: Aussies vie with Merson in 'tache dash for growth

View From The Sofa: Soccer Saturday/Rugby Union, Sky Sports/BBC2
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The Independent Online

Paul Merson's tussle with the English language on Soccer Saturday has become one of the consistent highlights of any sporting weekend, not least because the man himself seems to enjoy the contest so much. He knows he is up against it but the competitive spirit is strong; he will never lie down and let himself be buried beneath the relentless assault of vowels, consonants and any player not called Smith, Jones, or Merson. He will fight them on the pitches, on the London grounds (in particular the Emirates, but not so bothered about the Lane), in the playing fields, anything to pay the bills. He will never remember exactly how to say Altidore.

In conflict the art of deception is all, as Sun Tzu put it, or was it John Buchanan? And Merson has proved an unexpected master of it. To draw attention away from what comes out of his mouth, Merson has disguised it with a facial hair structure that would shame Village People, Wyatt Earp, Merv Hughes or anyone else you can think of who has cocked a hirsute snook at the clean-shaven. It was the standout performance of what turned into an rewardingly hairy weekend.

With the honourable exception of W G Grace and the Seventies (or Eighties in Australia and New Zealand as they tend to be a decade or so behind), by and large sportsmen have been slaves to the razor. Thierry Henry has even made a bob or two out of it, although having been cast as the most evil man on the planet he will no doubt feel obliged to sprout the twirly sort of moustache that was popular in the early days of Hollywood villainy and, come to think of it, still is with the French.

It is from Hollywood that this latest hair-raising outbreak can be traced. David Beckham shook the grooming world, wherever that is, when he first unveiled his beard a couple of months ago. But he found few followers in football and so it is rugby that has picked up the, um, hairy ball and run with it.

Murrayfield can rarely have witnessed so many wispy moustaches as sported by the Australians on Saturday. To a man, give or take the odd prop, they managed to look like Stilton Cheesewright, who once struggled manfully to match Bertie Wooster's dashing 'tache and so save his engagement to Florence Craye. Which is much more diverting than most of the rugby that has been all over our screens and red buttons during the last three weeks. And which is why the progress of the Australians' moustache-nurturing from Twickenham to Croke Park and now to Murrayfield has provided something worth tuning in for.

At least Scotland's victory provided some badly needed drama. Rarely can Matt Giteau have kicked so badly and given the slender margins of error that make or break top-level sportsmen, perhaps it was the slither of stubble whispering across his upper lip that affected his balance and caused him to allow the home team finally to deliver a result to match the extraordinary pre-match shenanigans that Murrayfield persists in producing. Fireworks, a piper strapped to the roof of the main stand (presumably for some form of punishment on a wild Edinburgh night, and presumably with a weighted kilt), sweeping floodlights, the works. And it's usually followed by a procession of points for the visitors.

Not this time, although it was a close shave for the rosy-cheeked Andy Robinson, who must have gone to bed on Saturday a very happy man.

The Aussies are shunning shaving in a good cause. Down Under, November is branded as Movember (are you with them?) – a month when men, largely, grow moustaches to raise awareness of male health issues. Merse's startlingly heroic arrangement is apparently in a similar cause and will only get better. Next Saturday can't come soon enough. The Aussies will have to grow some if they are to match him when they run out in Cardiff.

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