It is a strange sensation to be an avid follower of football, an ardent fan of Everton FC, and an only occasional admirer of rugby union and Formula One, yet to find oneself contemplating the weekend of the season's first Merseyside derby more excited about a rugby match and a grand prix than Everton v Liverpool.
Actually, that's stretching a point. I would rather see Fernando Alonso or Kimi Raikkonen pip Lewis Hamilton to the World Championship in Brazil tomorrow than see Liverpool pip Everton to bragging rights this afternoon on Merseyside. But would it give me any less pleasure to see Jason Robinson running rings round Percy Montgomery in the Stade de France than to see Mikel Arteta running rings round Jamie Carragher at Goodison Park? That's a trickier one.
It might seem rather pointless to compare sports in this way. But sport is an organic whole, not merely the sum of unconnected parts. Many of us are still absorbing the grim realisation that a major international football tournament is almost certain to unfold next summer without the participation of those so-called world-class players Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand. This evening, a different – and, let's be frank, more impressive – set of Englishmen have 80 minutes in which to wipe the misery of Wednesday night in Moscow from our collective memory. If it is a burly Cornishman who holds the Webb Ellis trophy aloft, everything will seem right with English sport, and indeed with Englishness itself; our bulldog virtues confirmed, our Blitz spirit distilled.
If, on the other hand, the final proves to be a bridge too far for Phil Vickery and Co, and the odds say that it will, then the heroic failure of our rugby players will compound the somewhat less heroic failure of our footballers, with only Hamilton in his McLaren left to redeem eight days for English sport that began so promisingly with victories at Wembley and in the Stade de France. If only young Lewis were driving a Hiddink. With it being a McLaren, so nearly a McClaren, the chances are that the wheels will fall off. Besides, even if the remarkable youngster does win the World Championship in his rookie year, no amount of acceleration will shake off the asterisk alongside him, telling posterity that he won the title even though his team were judged guilty of stealing industrial secrets.
No, it's the rugby players who must shoulder our hopes of redemption, and their colossal achievement in winning the World Cup, if win it they somehow do, will stop us moping over the footballers' dismal Euro 2008 qualifying campaign. More to the point, it will stop us moping over the imploding property market, rising fuel bills, the ceaseless barking of next door's dog, and the hiatus hernia, such is the palliative power of sport. A second successive World Cup for England's rugby players – a 50-1 shot before the tournament and a 66-1 shot after the pool-stage humiliation by the Springboks (which actually seemed a little tight-fisted on the part of Mr Ladbroke) – would count as a sporting miracle, and might even bring a smile to the faces of Steve McClaren and his hapless boss, Brian Barwick, since it is also a miracle they need in the form of Guus Hiddink's confident Russian team yielding points in Tel Aviv next month. They would be entitled to take heart from the message that, in sport, miracles do sometimes happen.
On the whole, though, I think they and we will be denied a miracle tonight. England might have acquired an irresistible force since the first whistle of the knockout stages but the Springboks are this World Cup's immoveable object. England 9 South Africa 16 is this column's gloomy prediction, which would at least bring some cheer to those Scots – and Welsh, and Irish – who like to pull for Anyone But England. I'm sure there'll be some glasses of Stellenbosch clinked in Edinburgh, should the English effort falter at the last.
Of course, it has been a dispiriting sporting week for the Scots, too, with an unexpected defeat for their footballers against a barely pubescent Georgian side, likely to deny them a visit to Austria and Switzerland next summer. Their chances are a damn sight less miserable than England's but victory over Italy at Hampden Park has to count as improbable, despite their wonderful record in this qualifying campaign of rising to the biggest challenges.
In fact, when you think about it, there are striking similarities between England's pursuit of the Webb Ellis trophy and Scotland's valiant attempt to qualify for Euro 2008. Both have called on huge reserves of willpower, both have upset the odds, both have unleashed a feelgood factor at home and both seem likely to fall at the final hurdle. But at least the teams of Alex McLeish and Brian Ashton have made it as far as the final hurdle. Rooney, Gerrard, Ferdinand, Terry and Co haven't, and for that McClaren, rather than McLaren, will have to take the rap.
Who I LikeThis Week...
Will Greenwood, the 2003 World Cup winner, whose contributions to ITV's coverage have been among the highlights of the tournament for those of us watching in our living rooms. Greenwood has also been hired by a national newspaper to write a column during the World Cup, and he recently told me how much of a struggle it was for him. When he was seven years old, he said, his teacher told his mother that the English language would always pose problems for him, because he had no imagination whatsoever. Yet behind the microphone his imagination positively runs away with him, and jinks into some unlikely places. Last Saturday he somehow managed to compare Jonny Wilkinson eyeing the posts with Lee Harvey Oswald eyeing JFK's presidential motorcade. I even caught a mention of a grassy knoll. Marvellous stuff.
And Who I Don't
Poor old Steve McClaren is simply too obvious, so instead I'm plumping for the man who employed him, the FA's chief executive, Brian Barwick. Everyone agrees that he is a nice fellow, and I can endorse that, but when he had the chance to appoint an England manager with vision, charisma, tactical nous and, most significantly of all, a terrific international record, he blew it by elevating Sven Goran Eriksson's assistant. It's easy to say in hindsight, but there were plenty saying it at the time, that Guus Hiddink should have been made an irresistible offer to manage England.Reuse content