Sunday, 28 February 2016

England-Ireland was a good match. But it didn't look good for the nations of the North

It was odd to find myself overtaking the Irish Rugby Football Union team bus on the M40 this morning. I was heading towards Oxford and my mother’s; it presumably for points West, into Wales and a boat for Ireland. In the meantime, I was just another Englishman pulling ahead of the Irish Rugby Team, just as happened on the turf of Twickenham yesterday.

Another Englishman posied to leave Irish Rugby behind
We fans of England tend to be rather a lonely band: no non-Englishman is every likely to join us, since England is the team everyone loves to hate. “Anyone but England” is a pretty standard position to take.

That tends to put chips on our shoulders, and with the way the England team has been playing of late – and “of late” in this context means the last twelve years or so since it won the World Cup in 2003 – those chips get knocked off our shoulders with monotonous regularity. Rugby fans, however, unlike their counterparts in that villainous game with the round ball, are supposed to resist provocation, so we try to smile through the gloating and show that we’re bigger than that.

A win over Ireland, winners of the last two Six Nations Championship titles, is therefore satisfying. Still more satisfying, though, would be to see England playing well. Sadly, we’re not there yet: England’s victory against an injury-bedevilled Irish side was hardly the sparkling triumph we might have liked.

It’s a sad truth on the rugby world stage that the teams from the Northern hemisphere tend to be weaker than those from the South. That’s been historically the case, but in my experience it’s never been truer than now. Last year’s World Cup took place in England, giving the North home advantage, but not only did the hosts, England themselves, fail to make it to the quarter-finals, not a single Northern team was among the four in the semi-finals.

Admittedly, one was denied in the most galling circumstances: Australia overcame Scotland in the dying moments of their quarter-final, but only due to a penalty awarded in a terrible refereeing error. However, had Scotland progressed, it would have been a fluke, as the Scots have proved themselves yet again this season to be one of the weakest teams even in the weak Northern Hemisphere.

Funnily enough, that weakness however makes the great competition of the North, the Six Nations championship, more interesting. At least the teams are all much of a muchness. There don’t tend to be easy, run-away wins. Several times this season matches have been won by teams which were behind at one point – notably in yesterday’s England-Ireland game, where Ireland was 10-6 up before ultimately losing 21-10.

So the weakness of all the teams involved has made for more gripping games and better entertainment. But they remain weak. Often, in the most trivial way. Again and again, promising England moves were frittered away in penalties conceded for avoidable and silly infringements. These are professional players and they should know better than to make life so much easier for their opponents.

Why, two England players committed infringements so serious that they had to spend ten minutes off the field, in the sin bin. Terrible self-inflicted injuries...

So the match was fun to watch. And I enjoyed overtaking the Irish team bus. But overtaking a Southern team would be far more satisfying, if unlikely to happen any time soon.

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