James Lawton: All Blacks' Carter trick confirms sport's modern contempt for the paying public

'A lot of money is being paid for something less than authentic competition'
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There is quite a long list of reasons why 82,000 rugby fans travel to and from Twickenham tomorrow - mostly in conditions that even Bolivian mule riders might find a little oppressive - to a game in which the world's best player appears only because an infinitely less talented team-mate proved to be unfit yesterday. None of them, naturally, even vaguely brush against the idea that somewhere along the stuttering, overcrowded rail line the desires, even the yearnings of the sports public, should be something of a priority.

The most significant explanation for the planned absence of the masterful Daniel Carter was that the All Blacks believed they might still have a chance of beating the current England team if they sent out some brawny sheep shearer in his place.

Here are some others. New Zealand were saving their biggest gun for the much more important game against France, which many see as a full dress rehearsal for next year's World Cup final. It is the way of modern rugby touring. You bring a big squad to fulfil the contractual demands of the money- spinning operation, thus sparing top players the obligation to perform - and sell a game that is supposedly hell-bent on expansion - with a mere six or seven-day respite.

Twickenham was a sell-out long before the New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, started counting heads at the airport back home. Perhaps, most importantly of all, television contracts would yield not a penny less because of the absence of a player who can make the difference between mere endeavour and world-class entertainment.

Only big-time sport could pull such a move in the certainty of facing no more than the odd whimper.

Certainly, they wouldn't try it at the National Theatre or Carnegie Hall. When Luciano Pavarotti cried off sick in New York some fans were so outraged their threw their programmes and other missiles at the stage. A spokesman for the New York Rangers ice hockey team, whose fans have an unenviable reputation for rowdy, even occasionally violent behaviour, advised their followers to rush home from the game as quickly and quietly as possible in order to avoid the opera crowd.

None of this is likely to attract the flinty gaze of Henry. His team have a magnificent record and are rightly considered rock-hard favourites to pick up a Webb Ellis Cup that has, quite staggeringly, eluded them on all but one occasion. Henry is unquestionably a brilliant coach but if you put it to him that he had any need to please the public, especially the English one so heavily insulted by the experienced New Zealand hooker Anton Oliver earlier the week, he would no doubt consider you quite mad. What on earth was big-money sport about, after all? The mere titillation of paying customers? Let's be serious about this.

Yes, of course, but then there are other implications. Might the punters at some point decide that they would be much better off saving their money for a big show like the World Cup rather than frittering it away on showpiece games that, because of international planning or a brief cycle of form, are downgraded in the eyes of one team to little more than a training run.

The situation in international football reached farcical levels when the former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson reduced friendly games to little more than flagrant gouging of the public. That they served no earthly purpose in preparing the team for serious challenges ahead was, of course, an additional problem, but scarcely the reason why Fifa brought in new regulations on the limiting of substitutions.

The broader point, surely, was that the gullibility of the customers could be stretched - and plundered - only so far.

In the case of tomorrow's game the problem was particularly acute because, for all their wonderful qualities, an All Blacks team without Daniel Carter is an orchestra stripped of its most dazzling virtuoso. The music would be, technically speaking, of the soundest order, but a crowd of 82,000 provides a stage that should never be wilfully denied an opportunity to present genius on one of a handful of occasions it might be available.

The real point, of course, is that professional sport does have a quite basic duty. It is not to produce a circus of entertainment, but the best and the freshest competition it can provide. If by some miracle, England should raise themselves up to something more than a parody of world champions and beat the All Blacks tomorrow their achievement will stand without serious question - and minus the asterisk reporting that Daniel Carter was absent.

But then, the New Zealanders would no doubt ask, why should they worry about such a starry-eyed projection? They have a simple duty to produce the best possible team for World Cup action next year.

If this means that somebody like Daniel Carter should sit down along with 82,000 spectators, so what? The trouble is that a lot of money is being paid for something less than authentic competition across the whole spectrum of sport, and fans of leading football clubs hardly need reminding this as they approach the optional knock-out tournaments. What is happening, of course, is that spectators are being squeezed until the pips squeak. The great West Indian fast bowler Courtney Walsh, an official ambassador for the World Cup of cricket next spring, admitted the other day that his game is utterly overexposed. Result: weary players and the threat of burn-out that for years has stalked such brilliant talents as Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar.

New Zealand's rugby men will say that they were doing no more than protecting their greatest asset for more important matches with their original plan not to play Carter. But, in his absence, they no doubt would have been just as happy to take the money. As it happens, Twickenham will get to see the matchless skills of Daniel Carter. But only as a gift of fate - not the right it should always have been.

Chelsea's cheating devalues their chase for glory

Crazy as it may sound, a prevailing suggestion is that somehow Chelsea pulled some kind of acceptable trade-off in the Nou Camp this week when fighting back to draw with the reigning European champions, Barcelona.

Yes, the theory goes, they produced still more squalid examples of cheating and their coach, Jose Mourinho (right), yet again produced some of the more obnoxious aspects of his nature when guaranteed a maximum audience. But then Chelsea did contribute to some brilliant passages of football and showed again the kind of competitive will which might indeed deliver the greatest prize in European football. So that made everything, well, if not all right, perhaps not so bad.

It is an idea deserving maximum contempt. If the meaning of sport still has anything to do with decent, honest effort,if it has not been finally expunged by a descent into moral darkness, Chelsea's triumph wasn't worth even the ambivalent headlines it provoked. It was irredeemably flawed because cheating is cheating however it is dressed. It also, of course, devalues and ultimately destroys everything it touches.

At the finish Mourinho slid on to the field in an ecstasy of triumph. More properly, he would have slunk into the night.

Sir David would be mockery of World Cup heroes

Quite rightly, reports that David Beckham is to be knighted at the age of 31 - and just a few months after his embarrassing breakdown while being substituted in the last game of another major tournament in which his contribution had been painfully slight - have provoked hilarity.

However, the proposition had to be put, only reluctantly, to the five World Cup winners - Alan Ball, George Cohen, Roger Hunt, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson - this week. All five of these authentic heroes still occupy the lowest rung of the honours system. They were awarded MBEs 34 years after contributing to that historic day at Wembley.

You might say that none of them has contributed as much to charity as, for the moment, plain Mr Beckham. But then it is also true that they have never quite had the means. Their reward for the achievement was precisely £1,000.

In the circumstances, we should perhaps content ourself with Cohen's recollection of the time when he heard about his honour. He reports: "A lady from Downing Street called me to ask if I would be averse to receiving an MBE. I said, 'not, not all - thank you very much.' It was a bit comical, however. She told me they had had quite a bit of trouble finding me. In fact, they had finally got hold of my number from Nobby Stiles, which I didn't think said an awful lot for the Secret Service."

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