One of England's great sporting knockout competitions reached a glorious crescendo this week, not that the eyes of the nation were upon it, for this was only the English schools rugby union national finals day.
Only? More than 600 schools entered, and in the Under-15s division the last two XVs left standing were those of Wellington College and Wilmslow High, who at Twickenham on Wednesday, in front of a Lower West Stand packed with proud relatives, contested a tenacious yet thrilling cup final.
It was a clash between north and south, but more obviously a contest between state education and the private sector. The fees at Wellington College are not unadjacent to £30,000 a year, and its budding rugby players get the hot-house treatment; the England forward James Haskell and Scotland's Max and Thom Evans are among those who bloomed there. Rugby has always been part of the school's ethos; in 1871, indeed, it was one of the 21 founder-members of the Rugby Football Union. Whereas Wilmslow High, established in 1960, is a comprehensive with 2,000 pupils and while it is true that the Cheshire town of Wilmslow is not exactly synonymous with social deprivation, the contrasts with Wellington are stark enough.
And so to the match. The Wilmslow supporters had waited as anxiously on knocks to clever fly-half Callum Westaway and mighty second-row forward James Venables as Twickenham's Sweet Charioteers ever waited on knocks to Jonny Wilkinson and Martin Johnson, but both were passed fit to play, although their presence could not prevent Wellington taking a 7-0 lead. This was no more than the Wellington parents had anticipated. They do not shell out those fees without commensurately high expectation levels, and besides, Wellington had reached the final seven times before; it was Wilmslow's first appearance.
Gradually, though, the comprehensive schoolboys asserted themselves, levelling the score at 7-7, and then taking a 10-7 lead, all the points scored by scrum-half Will Batterbury. This was how it stayed, to the vocal and sometimes not altogether polite consternation of the Wellington parents, and while it would be entirely wrong of me to present the match as oiks versus toffs, let us belatedly give a cheer for the victorious underdog, and let me vent my inverted snobbery only in the form of regret that nobody among the Wilmslow fans thought to counter the posh chant of the Wellington faithful – "come on Welly!" – with a more proletarian "we love our Willy!"
The agony and ecstasy of a Champions League neutral
It's not often that we neutrals ride the emotional rollercoaster in Champions League weeks, but the quarter-final travails of Manchester United and Arsenal had me punching the air one moment, and peeking through my fingers the next. Seeing Wayne Rooney stricken on the Munich turf was, as they say, déjà vu all over again. Hard nuts from Croxteth boxing families don't writhe in agony without good reason, and I can't have been the only person sitting on my sofa glumly anticipating endless diagrams of metatarsals, and weeks of football-mad vicars exhorting their congregations to pray for the Rooney bones to heal in time for the World Cup.
We know now that the alarm was misplaced, but the following night's Arsenal v Barcelona game made me idly wonder whether, with Lionel Messi transcendent, and the often-maligned Zlatan Ibrahimovic rediscovering his nose for goal (and what a nose it is by the way), even a fit Rooney would break into that extraordinary Barça team?
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that with a bit of luck and a following wind, England have enough world-class footballers to reach at least the last four in South Africa, yet I don't suppose Pep Guardiola would replace his first-choice Barça players with any of them. Not for the first time, the notion that the best football team in the world will win the World Cup is fanciful; as in 1958, when Real Madrid were in their pomp, and 1990, when Milan were untouchable, the best team in the world isn't eligible.
When the big occasion gets to an athlete
Passing through the Hilton Hotel at Paddington station on Tuesday, I spotted the great yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur at a table in the lounge, deep in conversation. I didn't interrupt her to say hello, even though I've met her on a number of occasions. After all, those other encounters were alongside the deep blue sea, with MacArthur in her sailing togs. The Paddington Hilton was no place to risk taking the wind out of her sails.
Seeing sportspeople out of their natural habitat can sometimes be as disconcerting as seeing mighty birds of prey chained up in forlorn little zoos; unable to swoop and soar, they can look distinctly awkward. I wouldn't say this was true of Dame Ellen, who was gabbing away with her usual enthusiasm and didn't look as if she'd rather be crashing into a force eight with only an albatross for company, but I once went to a black-tie dinner organised by the British Olympic Association, and it occurred to me there that the portly, florid-faced sports administrators for once looked looser-limbed than the athletes they administer. A man born to wear Lycra looks even less at ease in a cummerbund than a man born to wear a cummerbund might look clad head to toe in Lycra.Reuse content