No fat lady has sung; to my knowledge.

Read something really quite interesting the other day. On the subject of fickleness, I suppose, or at least regarding the alleged facts of fandom – whether or not this notion of the part-time or unreal fan is a fair kop. (That worth a ha ha?) Or whether it’s always been statistically the case that most fans either have more than one true love in their football ether, or actually go to watch more than one club; god forbid. Anthropologists studying that commonly identified sub-group The Bloke will be unsurprised I think that within this revealingly sharp and often vitriolic debate about Prawn Sarnie Munchers being Scum-a-the-earth or the Financial Lifeblood of the Premier League, there is a historical narrative for infidelity. Apparently, for yonks, it has been gently gently secretly the case that supporters have been de-tribalising themselves in order to watch better teams outside the immediate thrall of The Manor, or shouting Ev’ton one week and Liv’pool the next (for example.) Thereby dancing silently upon the grave of their own authenticity in the eyes of all right-minded people – like themselves.

God it’s a twisted world.

In life I make a point of a) being a huge optimist but b) never really believing anybodies facts and figures, so I won’t mention that the above research on home supporters is liberated from an article in Spiel magazine, lest you go accepting/reading it. Besides, I’m dealing in the woozily general again here, and do not intend (even) to write an article about football. I merely throw in this psycho-geographically resonating lifebuoy to provide comfort to those unable to persist with a post that turns out… against the early expectations… to be, in a roundabout way, about rugbystuff.

So what are we like, eh? One minute we’re crowing or guffawing at either George North or the Irish Pack; the next we’ve drifted. Back to the Real Sporting Giants – Drogba/Suarez/Torres and soon enough Rooney. As though they can or rightfully do satiate our needs both for sporting drama and mighty role-models. Providing us with everything a fan – fickle or sanctimoniously beyond those apparently spurious judgements – could ever ask for.

The Six Nations comes to an unseemly deadstop, like some campaign in the Daily Mail undermined because it suddenly seemed Leftie; quietly and terminally, mirroring something of the muffled bitterness articulated by those dubiously rugby-converted purple rinses with their suddenly cultivated obsession for Our Stuart Getting That England Job, ahead of that Mallett man, with his unsettlingly dark features. The natural order of things succeeding, in The Mail and the proper world; properly.

The sudden smotheration of not just The Six Nations but of the existence of rugby in the British(?) consciousness so soon after that final toot at Twickenham last weekend must surely be a metaphor for something. As well as being another one of those alleged facts. Perhaps it means that – shock horror probe – folks are not died-in-the-wool, touch-pause-engaged fans in the real head-to-the-left-now-hit-like-fuck sense. They – like most of the referees at international level – have no genuine feeling for, or understanding of the dark arts or finer points of frontrowdom. They admire something of that knightish physicality; wonder how that game can go on like that with that bloke reeling around under the trainer’s insensitive touch, four foot six away from the ongoing action. Why don’t they stop, like in proper games? And how does that counter-rucking thing work anyway? And how can that thing there be right, when thingumee just pawed oosit with his studs? Like that!?! Deliberately. What ARE the rules exactly, about that?

In Wales and quite possibly Ireland there is some general understanding. The Vinnygeez has waxed lyrical often enough about this. (In Wales) red cloudbursts of communal expression; joy through clumping; tries against the English as symbols of nothing more than reasons to exist as a nation. Proper engagement on a national, visceral and poetic level. Max Boyce as the Pope/Tom Jones as The Singing Pope – or something. Something like a very much friendlier triptych than might be produced (on a post Grand Slam bender?) by Francis Bacon, let’s say, who despite his fringe-celtic toff-centric out-there-ism I suspect didn’t know much about the game of rugby. Like many residents of Soho. Apart from Brian Moore. Who really does know plenty.

But I fear I digress. (Like for a living, almost.) The point I wish to make is that there is some sudden flopping off the continental shelf going on here, as the Fact Of Rugby slips like some unappreciated gloop into the all-consuming depths. And I am interested in the reasons for that. I have a hope that because the general level of sportsmanship, commitment, fitness and honourability amongst top rugby players is so absurdly high that therefore its profile and relevance and capacity to touch the hearts of (ideally) nine year-old boys and girls will deservedly soar. Leading to – amongst other things but as a suggested minimum – a manifest improvement in respect for the planet and all who inhabit it/the necessary election of a series of humanitarian socialist governments. Because rugby really is pretty wonderful, containing as it does a uniquely focused and encapsulated form of selflessness, teamwork and bravery that entitles it fully to snort derisively at (for example) Drogba’s ham-and-pineapple quattro-staggione-in-one-day blousy affectations. Rugby I know not being perfect but rarely being that embarrassing. But I fear I digress.

Look the rugby season for our friendly Six didn’t finish just because those games did. In fact right now the club season approaches its critical phase; Heineken Cup; Premiership Trophy; equivalents and more to the massively more exposed football carnivals. So let there be space for both in your own personal calendar.

And on the international scene this enthralling but actually parochial knockabout recently enjoyed may well feel disappointingly clubby compared to summer tours or autumn internationals against the acknowledged kingly beasts and champions of the game – the Tri-Nations posse. Either way, don’t look away so prematurely, so part-time-supportedly, so uninformedly now. Because quite frankly if you invest a touch more of your time into appreciating what these backs and forwards are up to, you may well find it’s shockingly expressive of the greater sporting instincts. Those that touch pause engage upon support; heart; camaraderie. Remember them?


Is the following a depressing notion, or a fascinating one, or an exciting one? The idea that ‘bottle’ – the possession of real confidence in the moment of real pressure – is the most critical factor in sporting success. Is it really that simple? And at every level? Well maybe today it feels like it.

1.  Having coached a cricket team this very afternoon to a losing draw where the difference was their batsmen’s prolonged exercise of controlled technique against (even) our threatening bowling


2.  Having watched the Japanese women cruise through penalties against the feeble, glassy-eyed Americans, it does feel like it.

The brutal truth appeared to be that in both cases the losers were offering their throats. By this I do not mean that they were in any sense cowardly. However, I think they were sick to their stomachs and they wanted an end – any end. So on the one hand they (we) flung the bat with a quiet wrecklessness; the ball, the real ball and the real fielders barely registering in our dreamlike acquiescence. Similarly, the Americans, who had generally performed with power and energy up until the moment of real asking, abandoned control at the awesome 12 yard mark, apparently transfixed by some dancing cobra. Escape – hoof! – over the bar by miles! Escape – stub it lamely near central, where any joker could save it.  Escape, from this terribly real moment, from the responsibility of all this, now.

This is why choosing an opening batsman and a penalty taker and a player to play in say… a World Cup is a job for a real manager, someone who feels the pulses of fear and comfort experienced by his players. (This does not at all mean someone who’s been there, necessarily). Surely one of the abiding memories of the last England World Cup campaign is the almost comically inept management of the player’s chronic unease. Rooney was a serial embarrassment – the same Rooney who had carried England for three years on his broad, shell-suited shoulders, in the flush of his unbridled youth. Glen Johnson –amongst others – was beyond hopeless with nerves. Neither, presumably can watch the videos without squirming… but ditto two-thirds of the squad.

And Capello failed utterly, in every respect, to act. He failed to put a metaphorical arm round the spreading fear. (Or he failed to flush out the weaklings?) He failed to make significant tactical changes, so that it felt that there were no ‘fresh legs’, no Plan B. He was petrified when leadership was called for and his substitutions were, in all seriousness, both a disgrace and arguably the single most compelling exhibit in the case against his continued incumbency. Beyond the ‘tiredness’, virtually to a man, the show ponies lacked bottle; they were pallid, they jogged around avoiding meaningful contact with the game.  Fans hate that more than anything.

Given that my cricket team are 10 years old I am not entirely equating their confidence issues with Lampard and Gerrard’s in the England shirt. But the latters relative failure to own their  jerseys, to fill their associated boots are connected to my youngsters; because sporting achievement is predicated upon common essentials. Technique and/or skill, comfort and/or composure and desire. And good players – men, women, boys and girls – at all levels, have to burst through the glass ceiling that is achievement by combining these essentials with a lusty or sanguine or precocious or forced or inspired or workaday dollop of bottle.

July 17th 2011.