NORMAN GILLER is feeling suitably hyped-up ahead of this week’s “most vital match in the history of English rugby”
I don’t think I can be accused of entering the land of hyperbole [the Editor writes: Oh yes you can] when I describe Saturday’s World Cup Rugby showdown against Australia as the most vital match in English rugby history [the Editor writes: since last week’s].
Defeat will almost certainly signal that England are, embarrassingly, the first World Cup hosts not to qualify for the knockout stages. For non-Rugby types, let me explain that is the equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing without Bruce Forsyth [the Editor writes: Brucie was retired last year].
England’s early exit would knock the stuffing out of the tournament, and we will have to cover our ears to avoid the cackling laughter coming from the direction of Scotland, Ireland and, of course Wales, who pushed England into this precarious position with that astonishing victory at Twickenham on Saturday.
If I were a sports editor, I would be ordering my rugby specialists to prepare a breakdown of what it has cost England to stage this tournament, and what it means in lost opportunities to showcase the game to the biggest audience they are ever likely to get.
I would want reports from the Twickenham and club stores on how many England replica shirts have gone unsold, how much memorabilia has been abandoned to novelty sales on eBay.
Plus I would want to know how much ITV’s advertising rates are linked to England remaining in the competition, and also how much ITV are having to dish out to their army of ex-player pundits with hardly a facts-filled journalist among them.
The World Cup has been billed and ballyhooed as the rugby festival that would inspire and motivate the next generation of English kids, the biggest boost since the Jonny Wilkinson drop-kick that beat the Aussies and clinched a World Cup final victory in 2003.
Instead it is in danger of becoming the lost legacy, with England’s huge squad of players, coaches and pompous officials reduced to spectator roles for the rest of the tournament and ignominy for the rest of their lives.
Hyperbole? More like hyperventilating for those who run the Rugby Football Union.
WITH MY 20/20 hindsight, it astonished me that England chose to go for the corner and a last-gasp, hit-or-miss lineout assault on the Welsh line rather than attempt the kick that would have leveled the scores. Even had they missed, there was the possibility of recapturing the ball from the restart and then keeping the game alive for another push at the injury-ravaged Wales defence.
The bottom line is that England literally got a good kicking from Dan Biggar, whose 23-point haul has lifted him into the land of Welsh rugby legend.
With my soccer-reporting background, there will be those sneering about what would I know about the 15-a-side game.
A little personal history: despite being a boy from London’s East End, I went to a rugby-playing school, was house captain and played centre or wing for the school team. Among my 99 books (did I mention that the 100th is out next month?), is a rugby lists book I compiled with that genius of a player and lovely man, (now quite rightly, Sir) Gareth Edwards.
When I left school I played one senior game, a trial for Wanstead Rugby Club. A 14-stone second row hit my lightweight frame with a tackle that shook up bones I didn’t know I had, and I decided writing about sport was much less painful.
I was a huge fan of the Edwards-Barry John-JPR Welsh wonders of the19 70s, but Saturday’s performance surpassed anything I even saw from them in a measurement of courage and character.
As we English wait with shaking knees for yet another key battle with the Aussies, let me leave you with a smile by retelling one of my favourite stories from the matchless Gareth Edwards.
He was at a coaching session under the supervision of the great general John Dawes, who was outlining his plan to introduce code words before a match against England.
“When you want the open-side flanker to make a break,” Dawes said, “the codeword should start with a ‘P’. If you want to break on the blindside, use a codeword beginning with ‘S’.”
He tossed the ball to master scrum-half and king mickey-taker Gareth, who released it into the scrum with the shouted codeword: “Psychology!”
Bring on the Aussies.
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UPCOMING SJA EVENTS
Tue Oct 6: Entry forms for 2015 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards published
Tue Dec 1: Young sports journalists’ networking drinks – Details to be announced