It can be an odd experience returning home after a few weeks away in a country on the other side of the world where news from Britain is presented with a spin and swing of which Shane Warne would be proud. Because Australians are fascinated by our (and their) Royal Family, and have recently been put in touch with their gay side - a queerness-testing quiz called The Q Test is on prime-time TV - recent news from London has been dominated by one story. "So Charlie - is he a pillow-biter?" Australians would ask me.
This return was stranger than usual. While we had been in the air, a great and rare English sporting victory had occurred, so that by the time we landed the country seemed to be suffering from a collective nervous breakdown. It is of course exciting to win an important international competition, but the mood of sustained hysteria over the past four days has seemed extraordinary, like that of an excitable Third World nation after a village Madonna has been rumoured to have shed tears of blood.
Perhaps it is the contrast with the Australian mood that has confused me. Although the country is famously enthusiastic about sport, and built up a small head of steam in advance of last Saturday's rugby World Cup final, there is no way that a Wallaby victory would have prompted the orgasm of national excitement that we have experienced.
It is true that the Australians are more used to winning things, and that the vast majority of them are less enthusiastic about rugby union than they are about cricket or Aussie Rules football, but then again, not many English people gave a stuff about rugger until the events of last week. A socially elitist game, it is favoured by minor public schools anxious to appeal to their snobbier parents in spite of the fact that the sport poses serious risk of permanent neck, back and knee injuries to young bones.
Team spirit, character, courage and toughness win rugby matches, but for fluency, skill, tactical complexity and, above all, aesthetic pleasure to spectators, it simply cannot compete with the delights of the great and beautiful game of soccer.
It is unsettling to belong to a nation so pathetically desperate for sporting success that a win of this nature can virtually overnight transform a minority sport into "the national game", prompt an ecstasy of spending on the high street and, most embarrassingly of all, cause the Today programme to play itself out with a choir singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot".
With a dreary inevitability, the usual rent-a-gob moralists in the press have concluded that, while football represents all that is worst in our national character, rugby contains all that is noblest and most dignified. Of course it does, you prats. To compare the pressures put on young working-class footballers from the age of 10 by a multi-million sporting industry to those enjoyed by middle-class adults playing a relatively minor sport is almost as absurd as ranking international success in a game played with any degree of seriousness by 10 or 12 nations beside one that is played by every country in the world.
When a nation loses its marbles to sport in this way, it is not just high-street retailers and columnists who cash in. Politicians, step forward. In contrast to the predictably unsporting reaction of the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, shoving the Webb Ellis Trophy at Martin Johnson like a sulky 10-year-old playing Pass-the-Parcel, our own government is suddenly rugger-mad. It was to be hoped that art at least would remain aloof from the hysteria but, on the literary grapevine, it is reported that Andrew Motion is already at work on verses to commemorate this great victory, possibly exploring the deeper resonances of Jonny's glory-kick for the individual, for the nation, perhaps for mankind itself.
After that, our dynamic poet laureate will turn his efforts towards civilising football, helping in the search for a Football Chants Laureate who will create verses "observing key moments within the football season" to be distributed to fans.
What a touching idea this is. So obsessed with sport have we become that we oblige our national poet, a civilised, sensitive man with immaculate manners and perfect taste in clothes, to visit scruffy, litter-strewn football grounds throughout the country in search of a bard of the terraces.
It is an impossible enterprise. The sponsors of the prize have ruled out material that includes vulgarity, aggression and swear words, and, of course, these are the basic elements of any worthwhile football chant. The idea that once some verses have been created fans will obediently start singing them is seriously deluded.
Rugby supporters would doubtless play along with the scheme, showing the good-heartedness for which they are now famous, but fans of our true national game are rather more obstreperous and bloody-minded - and thank goodness for that.Reuse content