Thursday, 4 March 2010

Practice doesn't make perfect losers

It’s always a high point of the year for me when the Six Nations Rugby tournament gets started.

It has so much going for it. First of all rugby leaves that boring game with the round ball way behind. In football, apart from the goalkeeper, everyone basically does the same thing – OK, some hang back a bit, others stay forward, while the rest mill about in midfield – but essentially they all go running up and down the field in a gaggle round the ball.

In rugby, there’s no confusing forwards and backs. As the camera pans along the teams during the anthems, you start with the giant forwards dominating the screen. Then there’s a drop of at least a head as you reach the scrum half. One of the things that made the New Zealand All Black Joshua Lomu so exceptional a player was that he was one of very few who could play as either a forward or a back.

Even within each division, the players all have roles that they have to master. A tight-head prop is not the same as a loose-head prop (aren't those great names?). Switch one to the other position and you get problems in the scrum, as Scotland discovered recently.

But that’s just the game itself. What makes the tournament particularly interesting is that it includes the four home nations – and it’s wonderful that for these purposes Ireland is one of the ‘home’ nations, and draws its players from North and South of the border – as well as France and Italy, and I can’t think of anything else that links specifically those six countries.

Italy still has a long way to go (even though they beat Scotland – again – last week) but France is a major force in international rugby. It’s hard for this England fan to admit it, but they’re probably the best side in the Tournament and are likely to take the Grand Slam this year. That’s tough to swallow, but I do like the fact that a Latin nation is able to play such a role in what remains a predominantly English-speaking competition.

And then there’s England.

Each season starts with a new flowering of hope.

Objective one is to win the Grand Slam, to beat all the other sides, which lasts until the first defeat.

Objective two is to win the tournament anyway, which lasts until someone else knocks it out of England’s grasp. 

Objective three, which I sometimes feel is the most important of all, is to beat France.

It happens much more often than one might think. Last season, the game was played in Twickenham, under historical conditions – I was in the crowd – and France was trounced. This year? It’s in Paris. France which tends to have just two speeds, full ahead and full astern, is in full ahead at the moment. As for England – well, they’re being sadly English.

What do I mean by English? They lost at home to Ireland last week. All hell broke out in the sports pages. Johnny Wilkinson, once the dream boy of England rugby has become the whipping boy, the scapegoat for all our shortcomings.

It’s terribly sad. It just confirms once again what I’ve long known: England are terribly losers.

Which is extraordinary considering how much practice they’ve had.

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