Today was France vs England. Often Le Crunch, though not quite this year, as Wales are out ahead. My friend Jon suggested I came down with him to Weybridge in Surrey, to watch his son play in an under 13 game and then watch the international in the clubhouse. Sounded a good idea: rugby and then more rugby, a couple of beers and hopefully an England win.
The club was situated in a gated village called Whiteleys. Like the cinema complex. I don’t know whether there is any connection. But it looked pretty exclusive. Deepest Surrey – no place for the riff raff. Guardian readers immediately reported to the police for subversion.
The weather was beautiful. It must have reached 20 degrees C by midday. Perfect for running rugby. Not so good for young lads playing on full sized pitches.
Jon’s son Louis’ team seemed to be half the size of the opposition. So not surprisingly the main tactic of that team was to give the ball to the big lads and try to run straight through them. It worked at the beginning, but Louis’ team rallied, and while they conceded six tries, they gave a good account of themselves and got a try at the end. What I was struck by was how, even at this level, some of the tackles were pretty crunching, and if they happened near to you, you winced at the intensity. On an adjacent pitch there was a game going on between 15-16 year olds. Blimey, that was frightening! Even the chanting in the huddles before the game started was intimidating. One boy got injured in the second half, flying up in the air after a tackle on the wing, and landing awkwardly. The game stopped for ten minutes as he was treated for whatever injury he had. There were medics on hand and he didn’t have to be taken away in the ambulance, so hopefully it wasn’t too serious.
But I have to say, the intensity of that 16 year old game looked far greater than what I remember from school. Maybe when you are playing it doesn’t seem as shuddering when a tackle is put in as when you are just watching. But I don’t think we did as many head-on tackles back in the seventies. And we probably didn’t have the muscles either. No-one lifted weights that I remember. Now it seems de rigeur amongst sporty teenagers.
My son fractured his arm (not badly) playing school rugby in his second year at senior school and lost interest after that. Watching today, part of me felt relieved; but another part felt he’d missed out on something. And that is the camaraderie of rugby. The team ethos. The respect for the opposition. I loved it at the end when the boys did their hoorays for their opponents, all shook hands in a line. Just doesn’t happen like that in football. Rugby is a hard sport, but one with real values, intact values.
And so to the big game. In the end we drove back to Ealing to watch the game at Jon’s house. And what a great match. The young England team, managed by the caretaker manager, Stuart Lancaster, gets better with every game. A 24-22 victory in Paris was a real triumph. As with the previous Six Nations games, England defended brilliantly, but what they also did this time was take their chances clinically. Three tries to France’s one, despite France having two thirds of the possession in the second half. Twice the number of tackles put in than France. The intensity of that is pretty hard to imagine. You compare it to those boys in the early afternoon, when even what they were doing made you wince. And then imagine what it was like out there in the Stade Francais. And then you see Ben Foden being interviewed at the end of the game, having put in any number of heroic tackles and runs, looking pretty cool, unflustered, not even sweating that much, and you think, amazing. The combination of skill, bravery, athleticism. Has to be admired.
So England move on to their last game, home to Ireland. Another really tough prospect, but the way they are playing now, a win has to be a real possibility.
My forecasts are all over the place – as expected. England and Wales better (so far), Ireland and France not so good. Right about Italy and Scotland battling it out at the bottom, but that is the established order nowadays. There’s always a new dawn promised in Scotland, but it never quite takes shape. Italy are getting better all the time, but still don’t have the pool of players necessary in that football-mad country.
A noble game, rugby. And the word that jumps out at me, which made today so enjoyable, and always does when I watch rugby, was one I used earlier.