The Last Word: Why do we love losers like Lions and Roddick?

Winning should be everything but it is a peculiar British trait that we champion the 'moral victors'
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The Independent Online

Perhaps losing in sport should be classed as the new winning. Or maybe we could come up with a new term for it. We do, after all, inherit a sporting world in which the third tier of English football calls itself League One.

Certainly, the whole public perception and mass media interpretation of the loser is in line for some revision following events at home and abroad in recent weeks: specifically the fate of the British and Irish Lions on South African soil and of Andy Roddick on the turf of the Centre Court at London SW19. One hesitates to roll out the cliché of referring to the playing surface of Wimbledon's main arena as "the hallowed turf" because from the haunted look in Roddick's deep-set eyes at the end of the men's singles final last Sunday evening, it was more like gallows turf for the gun-slinger of a racket man who lives in Austin, Texas.

Just sitting watching the American slug through the four hours and 18 minutes of his 77-game showdown with Roger Federer was a draining enough experience – as Roddick clicked into carpe diem mode and resolutely stayed there, even when he blew the second set tie-break, all the way to the miscued forehand that lost him his first service game and, with it, the fifth set and the championship. He had played like a winner, like a champion. He had played the better tennis even, those of us willing him to his apparently just deserts would argue. And yet he finished on the losing side of the net.

As Roddick sank disconsolately into his chair and Federer pulled on the gold-braided tracksuit top already sporting his record-breaking tally of Grand Slam titles (15), you felt that Andrew Castle might have taken a leaf out of the Eddie Waring commentary manual and sighed "Eeh, poor lad", just as the venerable Voice of Rugby League had done when Don Fox missed his last-minute sitter of a conversion attempt in the 1968 Challenge Cup final. There may well be other chances for Roddick to lift the big golden pot at Wimbledon but this was a big one, possibly the biggest he'll get.

He knew it, too, as he choked back the tears and took his bitter sporting pill with a grace that probably told you more about him than you might have gleaned had he emerged victorious. "Roger is a true champion," Roddick said. "He deserves everything he gets."

It was a nobility of spirit that said everything about a great tennis player, and a great man.

There had been something similar the previous day in the aftermath of the Lions' 28-9 victory in their dead rubber of a Third Test against the Springboks at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. It was suggested to Paul O'Connell that he and his fellow players might consider they had achieved a moral victory in the series, having so decisively outplayed their opponents in the final contest and outpointed them 74-63 overall.

"Look, the team that wins is the better team," the big Munster lock retorted. "You do what you have to do to win. The trophy goes to the team that wins." And that was a Springbok side who – like Roger Federer over 77 games at Wimbledon last Sunday – might not have been the better side over the whole sweep of the three-legged contest but were the best when it came to getting the points which mattered the most.

Still, let us celebrate not just those who do what they need to do to win but also those who do more than enough to lose like champions. And, naturally, keep our fingers crossed that Andrew Strauss manages to avoid the heartache of this noble new winning business between now and close of play at The Oval on 24 August.

Johnson up to job with recall of Jonny

Twelve months into his job as England's rugby union team manager, Martin Johnson is looking as much "the part" in his role as he did when he was England's second-row totem and captain. He may have taken up his post without any previous coaching experience and endured a torrid baptism against the big three of the southern hemisphere last autumn, but in the latter stages of the Six Nations Championship and the end-of-season Tests against Argentina there were signs of building blocks dropping into place in the construction job that is required ahead of the 2011 World Cup.

Jonny Wilkinson will be 32 when the Webb Ellis Cup is up for grabs in New Zealand but in selecting the recently turned thirty-something ahead of the 21-year-old Danny Cipriani for his 32-man Elite Player Squad for next season, Johnson has made another smart, sure-footed move. For one thing, Wilkinson is fit again following the knee dislocation he suffered last September and raring to get going as a new boy in the French Top 14 with Toulon. And a fit Wilkinson is an asset any England coach or manager would be unwise to dismiss. Even in the handful of games he played for Newcastle Falcons at the start of last season, he showed what a masterful fly-half he still is.

For all of the genius that Cipriani showed the season before last, he remains the Jack to Wilkinson's Master. He can only benefit from the learning experience.