We are back in the world of the Heineken Cup this weekend, which is no bad place to be: there is always a good deal of intrigue surrounding the central back-to-back section of the pool stage and judging by the way the results have gone over the first two rounds of matches, events between now and tomorrow week will have a very significant effect on the make-up of the knockout phase.
Talking of knockouts, Leicester and Northampton warmed up in appropriate fashion during what turned out to be a pretty fierce East Midlands derby at Welford Road seven days ago.
There has been more than enough comment on the nature of the fighting (or "handbags", if you prefer), but I was particularly interested in the views of Richard Cockerill, the director of rugby at Leicester. He spoke, from considerable experience, of the heightened passions that give such contests their particular flavour: paraphrasing him, he argued that for the most part players are perfectly capable of looking after themselves in such an environment. I don't disagree with him, broadly speaking. Unfortunately, there are many members of the whistle-blowing community who tend not to see things in quite the same way and who like to share in – and sometimes dominate – the limelight. Whatever the rights and wrongs of all this, it is a basic fact of rugby that the "no backward step in the face of hostility" approach is an essential ingredient of success.
Staying on this theme for a moment, I have always been fascinated by the so-called "Welford Road factor". So much has been said down the years about the narrowness of the playing surface; the heavily populated dug-out area, inhabitants of which have a habit of spilling on to the field; of the relentless physicality common to all great Leicester sides; of the vociferously fanatical, yet knowledgeable and generally good-natured home supporters.
There is a fine line between the intimidating and the inspirational, and rugby games in Tiger country often cross from one to the other and back again. I always felt that the most positive reaction for visiting teams was to draw strength from both. The trick is to create your own bubble within the wider environment. It's the only way, for there is no place in domestic club rugby that offers more of a challenge – the closest thing to the most rabid anti-English venues on the international circuit. It was, and I'm sure still is, a privilege to test yourself there, not least because post-match, the locals are full of respect and good humour (provided you've done enough to merit it).
My namesake at Northampton, the England wing Chris Ashton, has found himself at odds with Leicester's celebrated and much-feared Tuilagi clan on his last couple of visits, but I have to say that on the few occasions I've met the Samoan brothers, I've found them to be engaging personalities! From my perspective, Welford Road is as tough, difficult and confrontational as the people who play there – a place increasingly rare in this politically correct sporting age. Long may it stay precisely the way it is.
I could spend the rest of the column exploring the ins and outs of the big Heineken Cup fixtures, but I won't, for two reasons: firstly, virtually everyone will be doing something along those lines, and I like to be different; secondly, I want to pay my respects to two uniquely gifted sporting individuals who, in their different ways, have left us.
Last week's Wales-Australia match in Cardiff was as commercially driven as any fixture in recent Test history – I can't say I'm entirely comfortable with the manner in which these things are now routinely slotted into an already busy rugby calendar – but a fairly ordinary match was illuminated by Shane Williams, who was playing his last game at the very top level and managed to sign off with a trademark try at the last possible moment. Never one to be stifled by corporate-speak styles of management and coaching, he consistently demonstrated that a player of his diminutive stature can still prosper in this Goliath-dominated era if he has the requisite self-belief.
From a different sport and a different timeline, we also lost Socrates, the wonderful Brazilian footballer whose death was announced last Sunday. His name said so much about him: had the Greek philosopher of old played football, I think it most unlikely that he would have been a Ron Harris or a Norman Hunter. Would either of those fearsome defenders have been heard arguing that team sport was an example of democracy at work? Probably not. It was, however, the kind of thing Socrates the Younger said.
The South American was a remarkable character who in many ways stood alone in his non-conformity. A practising GP, he smoked 60 cigarettes a day and often drank to amazing excess. Born into a well-heeled family, he embraced communism: indeed, he named one of his sons Fidel, after the Cuban leader Castro. Yes, he stood alone, but some of his greatest predecessors and peers honoured him. Pele himself once said: "Socrates can play football facing backwards as well as most people play it facing forwards."
It was with great interest that I watched an interview with Socrates on the internet, in which he remarked that victory meant nothing – that those seeking victory were merely seeking conformity. I doubt his views would have endeared him to some of the coaches and players preparing for this weekend's Heineken Cup games.
Socrates constantly talked of the comparisons between football and painting, using Van Gogh to illustrate his view that those who copy originals will only ever find themselves left behind; that it takes real courage to behave differently and do something new. I would like to think that the individualism we came to associate with him – and, in a different way, with someone like Shane Williams – will continue to be valued and cherished by future generations. But equally, I believe we should lament the passing of genius, flawed or otherwise, whenever and however it occurs. In sport, at least, I fear it is in retreat.Reuse content