How England lost the rugby - by the experts

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The Independent Online
I was in the pub yesterday, partly to line my stomach with alcohol against any possible invasion of injurious fatty foods, partly to catch up on the aftermath of the shock defeat of England at the rampaging hands of the runaway French rugby team. I had not long to wait. No sooner had I inserted my tongue into the first life-giving quarter-inch of lemonade shandy than I heard a voice say:

"Well, what do you reckon to the shock defeat of England at the rampaging hands of the runaway French rugby team, then?"

The speaker was Sid, who always talks in newspaper headlines, and thus has few friends but is quite useful for getting a conversation started, or, more often, stopped dead in its tracks.

"Bit of a shock," said the landlord. "Defeat like that. We were well ahead - then bang! Rampaging runaway defeat. At the hands of. The French."

The landlord has a habit of rephrasing whatever the last person has said to encourage someone else to react. When the conversation is shared entirely by Sid and the landlord, it can be a mind-deadening experience. Luckily this particular conversation found someone willing to pick up the ball and run, as it were.

"I thought it was interesting," said Jim, "that the French did everything they are not meant to. Traditionally, the French rugby team is like the West Indian cricket team - when they are behind and heading for defeat, they find it hard to pick themselves up."

"Their heads go down," said Sid, master of the cliche.

"Their tails droop," said the landlord, not to be outdone.

"But not this time," said Jim. "Faced with an English team that was 14 points ahead and heading for a comfortable victory, the French got stuck in and overhauled the English to clock up their first win at Twickenham since Jack Rowell had dark hair. What went wrong? Why did the French lose their heads, panic and win? Well, I have a theory."

Jim is our resident theoretician. He can produce a theory to explain everything. Last week he even produced a theory to explain why Nicholas Soames had all the symptoms of Gulf war syndrome (amnesia, drastic weight problems, fading grasp on reality, total loss of personal responsibility, etc) without having fought there.

"My theory is that the way nations play games reflects their national characteristics. The Welsh play rugby with a Celtic passion. The Italians play football with artistry and cynicism. But the English play rugby - and football - in a very English way, that is, doggedly and systematically. No flair, not much invention or improvisation. They don't trust that. They don't like risks. They trust to hard graft. It's the old bulldog spirit. See it through. Get stuck in. Noses to the grindstone. The only time they ever dare to cut loose is in the last 20 minutes, when they have bored the enemy into submission. In the old days I would have said it was a hangover from the Industrial Revolution, but nowadays I think it's a sort of muscle-bound managerial malaise."

"What does that mean?" I said.

"The English play rugby as if it were a business project these days," said Jim. "You can hear it in the commentary on the BBC, all those blokes chuntering on about `making the ball available' and `setting up a platform for sideways expansion' and `recycling the ball for second-phase activity' and `cleaning up round the edges'. It's horrible. The English play rugby with a sort of grinding competence. They play rugby the way the Germans would play if they ever played rugby."

"That doesn't explain why the French won in the last 10 minutes."

"No," said Jim, sounding surprised. "It doesn't does it? But it explains why I'm bloody glad the French did win!" He gave a great shout of pleasure and beat the bar.

"I'm as English as the next man," he went on, "but it gave me a great deal of pleasure to see those 15 chartered accountants in rugby shirts get their comeuppance! Maybe now they'll give old Rowell the boot ..."

"I'll tell you something else," said Harry, who hadn't spoken till now. "Maybe the English team lost on purpose to get rid of their manager. Maybe this was Jack Rowell's Wirral South."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning that we have two white-haired men out there. One is called Mr Rowell and one is called Mr Major. Both want their contracts renewed for another term. Both say they can lead us to victory. Both have had a stunning defeat in the last two days ..."

"I have a theory," sad Jim. "I think that a country's politics reflects its national character. The thing about the English ..."

It was at this point I suddenly felt a crying need for fresh air, lunch, home and a protracted period of silence, and I have no idea what was talked about next.

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