Exiles' cup success prompts outburst of sentimental claptrap

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The Independent Online

A few seasons ago I took a small party to the London Welsh clubhouse after a match. To be completely accurate, I took them to the Mid-Surrey bowls club at Old Deer Park, which acts as a kind of supplementary clubhouse. After 20-minutes or so half a dozen men in late middle age, seated round a table with pints before them, broke into song. The woman member of our group, clearly impressed by this rendition of Welsh rugby's top 10, asked me:

"Are they old miners?''

"Not at all," I said. "They're all teachers, mostly retired I should think.''

At London Scottish, down the road at the Richmond Athletic ground, you went up-market, not perhaps intellectually but certainly financially. The Scottish supporters all seemed to be bank officials, solicitors or accountants.

Further out of London but in the same south-western neck of the woods, at Sunbury-on-Thames in Middlesex, the supporters of London Irish attained an even higher level of prosperity and well-being. Many of the appurtenances of wealth were on display: brown trilby hats, large cigars, thick, lustrous overcoats, some with fur collars. We had left the teachers and the accountants far behind us and were clearly in the presence of the building trade.

There was nothing stand-offish about these people. London Irish were the friendliest club in London. So they remain. At their new ground somewhere near Reading off the M4, they have attracted even more supporters. God bless them.

But they are not the London Irish of old. Many of the former outfit may have been born and brought up in London or the Home Counties, as for instance were Simon Geoghegan, Rob Henderson and one of Saturday's outstanding performers, Justin Bishop. But they were all qualified to play for Ireland and many of them did.

To speak of Saturday's cup winners as if they were a collection of worthy underdogs who had suddenly emerged from the Celtic twilight to astonish the rugby world is as big a piece of sentimental claptrap as I have heard this season.

They were, after all, lying second in the Premiership table (they are now third). The team who took the field at Twickenham were coached by a South African and contained six players who were qualified for England, five for South Africa, three for Ireland and one for Wales. Declan Danaher could presumably have taken his chance with Ireland had he chosen to do so but opted for England instead.

Northampton were even more of a branch meeting of the United Nations: or, rather, the disunited nations, as was demonstrated by the jostling – that, I think, is the polite word – between Budge Pountney and Matt Dawson as they came off at half-time, like two girls quarrelling. We all agree that it is wrong to hit a member of the opposing side. But it is farcical to hit a member of your own.

They were coached by a New Zealander and contained six players who were qualified for England, five for Scotland, and one each for Australia, South Africa, France and New Zealand. A Saints side of old – the name derives from St Mary's Church, whose team it originally was – would have contained farmers from the flatlands, such as Ron Jacobs, David Powell and Dickie Jeeps, policemen, teachers, representatives of the boot-and-shoe industry.

The Scottish connection came with Ian McGeechan, was maintained by John Steele and continues under the present coach, Wayne Smith; even though Northampton, unlike, say, Newcastle, is not especially convenient for Scotland. The other, more recent recruits are simple rugby mercenaries.

The odd thing about supporters in all sports is that they are prepared to give loyalty and affection to teams who have hardly any connection with the town or district they are supposed to represent. Accordingly, there was nothing surprising about Saturday's level of support for two sides that had, respectively, very little to do either with Ireland or with the East Midlands.

Even Llanelli, once the most inward-looking of clubs, are not immune from the cosmopolitanism of the modern game. Four of their first-team players are from foreign parts. Simon and Guy Easterby are Irish internationals, David Hodges played for the United States, while Salesi Finau came all the way to West Wales from Tonga.

Leigh Davies was originally a Neath player but arrived at Llanelli via Cardiff and Bristol. In the old days the traffic was the other way. The belief was that to get a cap you had to go to Cardiff.

Wales have had a wretched season, redeemed only by a near-win over France at Cardiff. Foreign imports or not, the nation's hopes now rest on Llanelli to beat Leicester next Sunday in the semi-final of the Heineken European Cup.