Seeing English white shirts coming out for a rugby international creates a special feeling for both opposition and spectators. Unless the game is played at Twickenham, the feeling is not affection. It’s not hatred either, even in Scotland when centuries of repression and the Braveheart fever is at its height, but it’s definitely more of a steely determination to compete and put bodies on the line.
I first discovered this particular feeling about England rugby teams when I refereed an under-19 international in Glasgow in March 1997. Apart from being woken by the late, great Bill McLaren, who wanted to know all about my background so that he could inform listeners even more comprehensively during his TV match commentary, my special memory of the game was the way that the Scots suddenly added a yard of pace and a degree of aggression in all contact situations. As I recall, Scotland won the match… and Bill McLaren gave me some Hawick Balls, so it was a good day all round.
And so the Saturday of the last weekend of the 2011 Six Nations found us in Lansdowne Road in Dublin, aka the Aviva Stadium. This was England’s first visit to the newly-rebuilt stadium and they came seeking a Grand Slam and championship. I’d already seen England in action twice at Twickenham as TMO for the England v Italy and England v Scotland games and expected a calm, collected, and aggressive performance. Boy, I was wrong on all counts.
England didn’t play badly. They didn’t play at all and were lucky to get away with a 24-8 loss. Or rather, Ireland produced their best performance of the championship to deny England space and to compete magnificently in all the contact situations. English players were tackled by two or three Irish players, they never made ground at ruck and maul, and the scrum was solid. The Irish backs provided the cutting edge and demonstrated just how good a collective unit they can be. By comparison, the English backs were ponderous and laboured and generated just the one chance, which died a death when they passed the ball to Ireland. Not even the arrival of the celebrated Jonny Wilkinson could do anything to ignite any sort of rhythm in England’s rank. By comparison, the Irish backline was sharp and created all manner of chances, and it was nice to see Brian O’Driscoll cap an excellent performance with a trademark one-handed pick up of a low pass before scoring a record 25th championship try.
“Swing low, sweet chariot” is England’s rugby anthem. Lots of fans had come across to celebrate the Grand Slam and championship and while England ended up winning the Six Nations championship on points difference (France really screwed up against Italy last week – a win there with a reasonable point difference might have made the championship tighter), all their fans got in Dublin was the chance to go on an epic pub crawl to drown their sorrows. The English team looked quite happy with themselves when they received the trophy at the Four Seasons hotel in Dublin after France had beaten Wales in Paris, but I suspect that they’ll be less content over the next few days when the nature of today’s defeat sinks in and the natural euphoria surrounding the award of a trophy fades.
Now that the 2011 Six Nations is out of the way, the business end of the club season comes into focus with the quarter-final of the Heineken and Amlin cups in three weeks time. I’ll be in Barcelona for the Perpignan vs. Toulon game at the Olympic stadium. It should be a tasty encounter and I’m looking forward to it already!