Hunter Davies: Rugby's coming home

England are World Champions again, after 37 years. Martin Johnson's rugby team has recaptured the glorious heights of the summer of '66. Now all they have to do is stay there
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The Independent Online

It's a sea change, a cultural revolution. Socially, economically and in terms of that all-important English thing, class, something dramatic happened yesterday. Life as we have known it, on newspaper back pages, in the sporting commercial packages, at stadiums and arenas, will never quite be the same again.

That's what they'll be saying over their wee drams in Galashiels this morrrrrnin, as Ian Robertson, the rugby radio commentator, used to say. Well, perhaps not Galashiels. But all over England, certainly. Because yesterday England won the Rugby World Cup.

What's it all about, Alfie? That was a Sixties film, now by chance being recycled, with a new version coming out. Apposite in a way. For all sports fans are thinking back to the Sixties, remembering 1966 and the last time our Lads Done Good. Inger-land, Inger-land. So what does it all mean? Will things be different?

Clive Woodward should get a knighthood. It's only fair. Alf Ramsey became Sir Alf, most certainly, as he always used to say. But there should not be any honours for captain Martin Johnson and the other stars. That will not be fair. Not for another 20 years or so. Sir Bobby (Charlton) and Sir Geoff (Hurst) were grandads by the time they got a title, while Bobby died still an ordinary Mr Moore.

Economically, no question here. English rugby should be awash with money, as should the players. They have only recently ceased to be amateurs, after centuries of getting only a few bob as expenses in their back jockstrap. England's rugby stars are now professionals. This year, before the Big Win, they were likely to make £100,000 to £200,000 each. Now, with all the spin-offs, they could make £1m each. Just 10 years ago, that would have been fantasy.

And yet, it's still piddling, compared with football, when you think David Beckham is likely to make £25m this year.

Rugby has a new icon, a household name known in, well, quite a lot of households. Jonny Wilkinson is not quite as pretty as David Beckham, doesn't wear earrings, is never seen in a sarong; his mum still brushes his hair and its style has not changed since he was four. But come on, he is far more macho, a real hunk, and just as squeaky nice, polite and scandal-free as Becks. Will he take over the teeny front pages and the Hello!/OK! celeb mags? We shall see, but it is something new for rugby to have a national pin-up, nay, a living god.

Mediawise, any change there then? Last week, there was one day when The Sun's back pages led on rugby, not football. Who would have expected that? Shows that the mass market, the mass media, has realised for the first time ever that rugby can have a mass appeal.

Television is laughing all the way to the ratings bank, especially ITV. They were so lucky, having extra time yesterday, being able to shove in all those extra commercials at prime rates.

That poofy bloke with a sort of sword, presumably supposed to be St George, who has been taking one step forward slowly as if trying to prevent the runs, who preceded every ITV rugger game, what was all that about? I never did get what he was advertising, but there were lashings of it. You could tell TV thought they were on to a winner from the mass of posters all over the country these past few weeks, exhorting us to follow some big beefy blokes wearing white. Or perhaps deface big beefy blokes in white. It did made a perfect canvas for graffiti artists.

It will be hard to prove either way, but I would estimate that the rugby coverage has not sold any more copies of The Sun or the Mirror and that yesterday's game got not much more than 10 million TV viewers. A comparable footer game can get nigh on 30 million. Way to go.

Culturally and socially, there has been a change already; witness all the rugger fans who flocked into the bars and pubs, which opened yesterday letting in people with no O-levels, some of whom had not even been to public school. Surely a sign that rugby is about to become classless?

Traditionally, English rugby has been a middle-class sport. One clue is not just the schools and parents whence they have come, such as Ben Kay being the son of Lord Justice John Kay, but their Christian names, like Josh Lewsey, Will Greenwood, Dorian West. Not a Darren or Wayne on the pitch yesterday.

There was a Jason, though, and he scored a try, which upsets any generalisation about rugby's middle-class image. So perhaps the class base of the players is changing.

And the supporters as well, they turned up in their England shorts, faces painted, chanting and booing, just like any well-brought-up, working-class soccer crowd.

Prince Harry doesn't count either way, as he's one of nature's yobs. He also turns up at Arsenal matches. That suggests the class changes are, in fact, happening in the other direction.

With football, for the first few decades, from 1863 till 1888 when professionalism came in, it was a purely public school game. But then it changed, becoming urban and working class for the next 100 years. Now it's altered again. It has not become middle class, despite what many commentators have said, but classless. Go to any Premiership game and you'll see all classes - all classes who can afford it, of course.

I think what yesterday proves, socially, is that if English rugby is doing well, and in a World Cup final, there will be an across-the-board following, even by those not quite sure what is going on. But I doubt if it will lead to increased attendances at club games. A bit likes tennis, really. We watch Wimbledon, then forget it for another year.

Soccer could gain a lot by the attention rugby has had and learn a few things. I love the fact rugger players get stuck in, knock the stuffing out of each other, yet don't argue with the referee. Blood bins are a great idea - players going off with a blood injury, replaced temporarily by another player; ditto sin bins - yellow-carded players being sent off for a short time. Being able to hear refs talking, that's excellent, and also the use of video replays by refs when it's a dodgy-looking try. This is all stuff that football could well copy.

Rugger also has things to realise and learn. During this World Cup, they played like the Germans used to play football - fit, functional, disciplined, relying on set pieces, not a lot of flair but making few mistakes. In the final, England did make a lot of mistakes, and the Blessed Jonny missed two drop kicks, but at least they scored an excellent try. That showed they can play attractively, as well an well as functionally. The lesson is: you have to be able to do both.

But the rules of rugby, my Gawd, we can all now see they need overhauling if rugger is ever going to get a mass audience. By comparison, football flows, is easy to follow and understand.

I estimate that 30 per cent of the time in rugby nothing is happening; either we're waiting, or there's no sign of the ball, hidden by the bodies. My biggest hate is penalties. They earn too many points and it's rarely clear why they are given. And they take so long. You can go to the lav, feed the wife, talk to the cat, and Jonno is still fixing his hands and practising his mad stare.

What rugby has to take from this famous victory is to remember what happened to our football after 1966 at Wembley. We told ourselves we were world-beaters, our rightful place in the pecking order restored. It was all a mirage. We have been rubbish from then on. Never managing another major final, and sometimes not even qualifying. So, you rugger buggers, enjoy the moment. You did well. Some things will be different from now on. But in order to win anything, or even to stay where you are, the hard work starts now.

Hunter Davies is football columnist of the 'New Statesman', and author of 'The Fan!' published by Pomona, £9.99