David Flatman: Bloodthirsty fans support their nation then drink with the enemy. It's great
From the Front Row: Player's perspective on magical Six Nations
Sunday 30 January 2011
I remember watching Rory Underwood scoring against Wales just metres away from my father and me as we sat in the old wooden seats at Twickenham in 1990. The atmosphere was incredible and we just knew that we had seen, in action, the team that would inevitably win the Grand Slam.
Actually, Scotland rocked the rugby world (well, our front room at least) by beating England to take the title themselves. At 13-7, it was probably a rubbish game to watch when measured by the yardstick that is the modern, professional buzzword. Execution, defensive systems and attacking frameworks weren't really discussed then; it was more the battle up front acting as a medieval prelude to Scotland's attempts to contain Jeremy Guscott.
But rubbish or not, it was the most viscerally exciting afternoon of the year in our house. That we ended up on the losing side was, in truth, neither here nor there; we screamed and leaped at every half-break, every decision. It was naked drama.
Is it the same these days? No, it's actually very different, but this does not necessarily make it worse. I believe the passive patriotism still exists; fans will appear almost bloodthirsty in support of their nation between the whistles but will, no doubt, drink alongside the enemy as soon as the lights go off. This is really what matters, what makes our game so great.
As for the rugby, it could not have changed more. This year we will see the scrummage, breakdown and refereeing scrutinised like never before. Each missed tackle and resulting line-break will be analysed to within an inch of its life because it's not 1990 any more, the game has moved on. So who has moved on the furthest?
I think that, up until the autumn internationals when they were hammered by Australia, nobody would have bet too heavily against the French. However, with coach Marc Lièvremont appearing almost schizophrenic in his selection, who knows which team will turn up? One thing is for sure, though: experimentation is a process undertaken to garner information and reach conclusions, so he'd better decide what his team is pretty soon as the World Cup is coming and the French public will expect cohesion as a minimum.
Wales have lost their most valuable player. Yes, James Hook is their best player and Stephen Jones calls the shots but on the back foot they, like any three-quarters, are rendered next to useless. Adam Jones, the big tighthead with the funny hair, has for years now been the quiet cornerstone on which the Wales team have come to rely. He showed his power on the Lions tour to South Africa and has been doing so ever since both for the Ospreys and Wales. He may look a touch too well furnished for the modern game but do not be deceived; he is built for purpose. The forward momentum he achieves will, in his absence, show its true value.
I think England will win the Six Nations' Championship. I just don't see where on the field they will be overcome. I don't see who will outscrummage Sheridan and Cole. I don't see who will carve Tindall and Hape to pieces . The line-out, with Lawes and Croft missing, is an area that all-comers will target but England have the resources to simplify, adapt and overcome, of that I am sure. Behind the brick wall England have, in Ashton, Cueto and Foden, the competition's most incisive back three, so it's not all brute force. They will find a way to win and, in World Cup year, this is all that matters. Forget periods of building, forget trying different combinations and forget buzzwords. Winning is all that matters, all that ever mattered. England need to arrive at the World Cup with a wave of momentum, as they did in 2003. They need to be in the habit of winning, prettily or otherwise.
So never mind that the seats are now made of plastic, never mind that there are now as many cameras as there are fans, the goals remain the same as ever. This time around we just need the Scots to play ball.
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