I hate football. I’m not ambivalent, I don’t shrug my shoulders, couldn’t go one way or t’other, don’t ‘watch it if it’s on.’ I hate it. I hate overpriced millionaires rolling around the floor in agony because someone breathed on their shoulder. I hate commentators and studio pundits encouraging this sort of behaviour. I hate groups of fans calling themselves, ‘firms’ and defining themselves by how much damage they can cause. I hate the narrow minded nationalistic hysteria it inspires. I hate British Broadcasters referring to England as, “we”. I hate Rangers and Celtic.
Things are particularly difficult now because I live in England, and as I type, England are fifteen minutes away from beginning their first World Cup semi final in… I don’t fucking care and the country is transfixed. On that point, I hate plastic fans too.
God forbid you voice any discontent with this situation if like me, you were born with the crux of being, ‘a sweaty skirt wearing jock with a chip on his shoulder’. Your opposition to the beautiful game en masse is jealousy of your superior neighbour. It’s because Scotland’s national side is pish. You’re a sore loser. The two teams drew the last time they played but even had Scotland, as in the rugby, won, you would still be a sore loser, because this is what Scots who don’t support the Imperium are.
It seems unlikely that there are many other countries in the world beside England where the levels of indignation that their neighbours don’t support them is as high. Ask a Belgian why they don’t support Germany and the simple answer of, ‘I’m not German’ would suffice for almost any enquirer. The suggestion that Croats support Russia would be met with ridicule. Americans may suffer under the delusion that theirs is God’s team, but even they don’t generally expect support from Canadians or Mexicans. For the English, the fact that Scots, the Welsh, Irish, and Northern Irish don’t support them is a personal, mean-spirited affront, and can only be explained by bitterness on the part of their lessers. This doesn’t extend to France, a country just as close, presumably because the English never had a successful invasion of their Southern neighbour and so don’t see la Republique as theirs.
Ironically enough, this young England team is the most fun to watch they’ve have in years. I’ve been impressed with Harry Kane’s style of leading by example. Jordan Pickford is evidently the best English goalie since David Seaman. Harry Maguire is an arsehole but as an England defender this is pretty much par for the course. And Gareth Southgate’s quiet humility is fairly endearing. They’re a group of lads it’s easy to get on board with wishing well. Except if you hate football in the first place.
Imagine you live in a country where the national pastimes of football and hating foreigners are anathema to you. Imagine they’ve been having a celebration for a month centering around your least favourite thing. There’s no escape from it wherever you go and whomever you talk to. Even friends generally uninterested in such things have been swept along in the melee. There is no escape and should you voice a moment’s discontent with this state of affairs, you’re attacked with English banter which has more in common with a Presidential tweet than a loveable witticism.
I’ve lived in England for twenty years; two thirds of my life, and I’m happy to call it home. All of my friends are English. As individuals they’re wonderful people that I’d recommend to anyone. As a nation they’re the worst. The conversational equivalent of towels on sun-loungers and cutting in line. Obnoxious, ignorant, and ill-tempered. Just look at Brexit. Football brings this out loudly and proudly every two years and it’s always worse when England do well.
This is all to say nothing of a national media that insists on conflating England with the UK at every opportunity. It’s to say nothing of political pundits typically uninterested in the beautiful game suddenly proclaiming that as Scots it is our duty to support the English. And it’s to say nothing of the crime spikes every time England play.
I hate football. I’d hate it if I were in Scotland, Mexico, or South Africa. It’s my bad luck to hate it in England. And they’re currently winning 1-0. Fucksake.
If ever there was a show that ended a multitude of times better than it started, this was it so let’s go in chronological order and get the bad out of the way before we get to the very, very good.
John Barrowman kicked things off. Never has twitter sighed with discontent so loudly.
Critics of Mr Barrowman would do well to remember that his politics during an event like this are unimportant, as are where he was raised and where he lives. It would be nice to say his accent is an irrelevance as well, but given that he insists on putting one on every time his Scottish roots are raised, unfortunately he ensures that’s not the case. Being Scottish is not about sounding Scottish, nor is it about spending every moment of your life in Scotland. It’s an identity which all are welcome to embrace and discussions of how Scottish someone is are distinctly unpleasant and have no place in civilised discussion. The pertinent question of last night was whether the distinctly camp (or ‘fabulous’ if you prefer) Mr Barrowman represented Scotland as most Scots would like. The answer, sadly, was a resounding no.
Twee, cringe-worthy and deliberately wiped from memory by most who watched it, the opening act of the 20th Commonwealth Games was an embarrassment that would have been perfectly suited to Eurovision or Christmas panto. For an event marketed as one of the biggest in modern Scottish history it was something that will be best left out by future scholars.
Joined by a notably manic Karen Dunbar who most will have been forgiven for wondering who she was and quite why her eyes were so wide, Mr Barrowman’s manic, CBeebies tour of what makes Scotland great (Nessie, heather and Tunnock’s marshmallows, apparently) was thankfully brief leaving the visiting Commonwealth with little time to consider why his Scottish accent disappeared when he sang, or why in a land as musically rich as Scotland, the organisers had picked a patient from the Priory Hospital to sing with him.
There were moments of positivity to enjoy, not least among them a gay kiss beamed to 45 countries where homosexuality is a crime, but by and large the opening of the opening was better forgotten than recorded.
In actual fact this was not the first thing to take note of. Shown on a 100m wide screen that weighed between 46 and 300 tonnes dependant on which journalist you listened to, we first got to see Billy Connelly’s introduction to his hometown, and it was as heartfelt, warm and funny as you’d expect from the Big Yin. Halfway through the countdown to the Barrowfest, Ewan McGregor popped up and it says something about the actor that presuming he wasn’t promoting Star Wars VII, everyone’s immediate thought was Unicef. Ewan talked of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help the world but was coy on the details, evidently hoping that when finally revealed after an hour’s entertainment, ‘text X to Y’ would seem more exciting than it usually does.
Post Barrowman, things improved. Kicked off by the ever wonderful Amy MacDonald who earlier along with Barry McGuigan and others had made even The One Show bearable, a VT of George Square bursting into song was shown, featuring real life Scottish people with real life Scottish jobs like ‘council worker’ and ‘police’. By the magic of television the troupe appeared in the stadium and were joined by… Rod Stewart?
Rod’s actually a decent example of what I mentioned earlier. Born and raised in London, half English and now resident in LA, there’s no doubt that the hundred-and-sixty-nine-year-old Celtic fan loves his Scottish heritage. Perhaps it’s because he’s never falsified an accent to ‘fit in’ but most Scots seem accepting of this and though it’s fair to point out that there are any number of younger, more contemporary acts in Scotland that would have meshed better with MacDonald, Stewart was welcomed as one of us. It’s not where you come from that makes you Scottish. It’s how you act.
Jovial pisstaking aside, Rod did rock it, particularly in contrast to what followed. Trailed all day by a luvvie BBC, Susan Boyle was wheeled out to phone in Mull of Kintyre, and promptly duffed up the opening line. No doubt sensing that their reputation was on the line, the ever reliable Scottish Regiment fired up the pipes and took centre stage filling Celtic Park with a sound that may not be unique to this country, but is unmistakably Scottish.
Then the Queen showed up and in the first concerted ‘Fuck You’ of the night to those unionists who’d secretly prayed for the worst of Glaswegian culture to make an appearance, got a rousing round of applause. Such was the surreal nature of God Save the Queen blaring out from the stands at Celtic Park that even republicans such as yours truly couldn’t help but be proud of the support, despite the ugly irony of paying homage to a multi-billionaire in a city blighted by child poverty. So warm was the welcome, the Queen beamed a smile throughout. I shit ye not. The Queen smiled.
Following this up was a nice but uninspired and all-too-short performance by two dancers from the Scottish Ballet to a touching reimagining of I Would Walk (500 Miles), which sadly underlined just how hard it is to give an intimate performance when the nearest spectator is over fifty metres away. Fear not though, because an altogether larger and more lively dance number was on the way, focusing on the touching story of brightly coloured people nicking chairs from Argos. Or something. Good fun, in any case.
Then the parade of athletes, so often the dullest part of any ceremony, here the centrepiece of a real party atmosphere, helped by breaking up into continental groups and interspersed with stories from Glaswegian Unicef ambassadors (and requisite celebrities) from around the world building up to the final appeal. Throughout, it was the Celtic Park crowd that made a procession of some 4000 people round a track the real star of the show, as the Scots cheered each nation (almost) as if they were their own and walking out behind a Saltire (though in lieu, a procession of Scottish terriers surely helped).
Highlights include every country who made an effort with their parade dress, those that danced, those that jumped and flipped, those that doffed their hats to their hosts by wearing tartan, Aberdeen hats, Celtic shirts and more, and the entrance of Team England. If ever there were doubts about what sort of welcome Glasgow would give its neighbours (and after a few weeks of unionist shit-stirrers in the press doing their best to hype it up, such worries could be excused), this was the moment when the city that did as much as any to build the Commonwealth stood tall and proudly showed it was one of the world’s greatest. Despite cynicism from some in the press (see below) athletes such as Mo Farah, Nicola Adams and the Bringley brothers received one of the largest cheers of the night.
Not quite the biggest however. That wold have been strange. “When the sporting Gods do shine their light on our pasty faces,” says IRN-BRU’s latest excellent advert, “Martians need earplugs.” Celtic Park put that to the test. It’s debatable whether any stadium in Scotland has ever heard such a roar as when the largest squad the country has ever presented to the Commonwealth Games took centre stage. Faces we knew and more we didn’t; every one was a hero last night, resplendent in the controversial parade dress that as it turned out, fitted perfectly with the unashamedly multi-coloured ceremony. Even had the sun not been beaming down on Glasgow all day, the range of colour within the stadium would have ensured that everyone there went home with brightness in their hearts.
Thereafter Rod Stewart made another appearance, killing off hopes that we might see the true breadth of Scots influence on popular music followed up by Unicef ambassadors Sir Chris Hoy and James McAvoy, prompting some imaginative ideas on Twitter, the best of which was that the kilt-wearing duo should fight crime together. Chris and James introduced Unicef’s unique world event, which as it turned out was exactly like texting X to Y so not all that unique at all. Still, all in a good cause and it seems an excellent idea for the organisers to have embraced. Unicef really did have a starring role last night, and as good causes go, theirs is hard to beat.
Text FIRST to 70333 to donate £5 to UNICEF for children around the world.
When the flag of the games was brought in, it was to the wondrous tones of Nicola Benedetti’s violin version of Loch Lomond which despite a new arrangement and lack of choir or central singer, was met with full song around the stands. A tribute then to Nelson Mandela who always had a special relationship with this city; it being the first in the world to back his struggle and giving him the freedom of Glasgow twenty-eight years ago, and a beautiful rendition of Freedom Come All Ye by South African singer Pumeza.
As all not gripped by hatred of the First Minister expected, Alex Salmond then led a sombre and professional moment of silence for those who lost love ones on Flight MH17. Thereafter it was simplicity itself, politics taking a backseat to the real message of the evening. “Fàilte gu Alba. Welcome to Scotland.” If brevity is the mark of a statesman, something must also be said for volume control. Following up Mr Salmond was Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Mathieson who as one quick commentator on Twitter noted, had evidently prepared for his speech by shouting at passing cars. Thankfully Prince Imran restored civility to proceedings before the real heroes of proceedings thus far, the volunteers without whom none of the games would be possible, took turns in bearing the baton on its final short journey towards the Queen.
When it got there, Prince Imran struggled with the seal for a moment, joining in the crowd’s good-hearted laughter before Sir Chris Hoy jumped in to help with the lid and the speech was passed to Her Majesty who declared the games open. That, in a nutshell, was Glasgow’s opening ceremony. Not without hitches, or flawless in any way. Kind though; warm-hearted, a shining example of the difference people make. Buoyed by a crowd representing a city and country always willing to be there to help others when it can, always eager to welcome the world to its doorstep, always ready to stand up and impress but as the sight of the Duke of Wellington’s cone-headed statue in the centre of the athletes brilliantly reminded us all, never one to take itself too seriously.
As Billy noted at the off and Glasgow has been saying for centuries. You’re most welcome. Come on in.
“Taking the positives” is a phrase unmatched in rugby when it comes to my levels of hatred for it. It’s sadly become Andy Nicol’s catchphrase, every bit as recognisable as John Inverdale forgetting that there are teams beyond England that could win the Six Nations, Doddie Weir wearing a garish (but brilliant) tartan suit, English complaints about Steve Walsh, ponderings about “which French team will show up”, praise for the Millennium Stadium’s atmosphere, ill-thought out metaphors about the state of Murrayfield’s pitch and the proclamation of Brian O’Driscoll as Ireland’s “talisman.”
Unfortunately for Scottish fans, Alan Hansen’s favoured lines are more appropriate when summing up our 2014 championship. “Shocking” and “diabolical” are amidst the nicer phrases you might’ve heard since Saturday.
Is this the lowest Scotland have ever been in the modern age? It seems hard to think otherwise when the wounds are still so raw. A mauling from Ireland. A humiliation against England. An all-important “W” thrown away to France and a vicious thrashing from Wales. I’d call the latter tear-inducing but after the preceding weeks mosts Scots will have had none left.
There was the impressive win against Italy, but that will be, unfairly or no, dismissed by critics as a match we should always take two points from. There was the dominant display against France but again the common explanation seems rather to favour a poor French team than a good Scottish one. In years from now when a Telegraph hack again suggests that Scotland be kicked out of this historic tournament they helped to found, the summary of 2014 will be four losses and one win. Against Italy.
There are obvious negatives that require little explanation and for once I’m forced to agree with people who argue player selection. Whether Duncan Weir will be world-class one day is irrelevant; he is not now though Scotland’s constant failure in the position is hardly his fault alone. Ross Ford may well have been a British Lion once but the new (old) scrum rules require a skill set he doesn’t possess, and whilst the line-out cock-ups aren’t solely the fault of one man, he can’t escape his responsibility for them. Greig Laidlaw is a decent scrum-half, but his lack of pace is made blindingly obvious when he’s replaced by Chris Cusiter, his kicking has been abysmal and his defensive shortcomings cruelly exposed against the strength of the Welsh backs on Saturday. Kelly Brown is an admirable man, but he’s no number 7 and when a team racks up what I think totalled roughly three hundred penalties per match as Scotland have over the past two months, the Captain must stand up and take the flak.
And then there’s Scott Johnson who I can’t help but feel sorry for. The man may not be international head coach material, but it’s only fair to remember he didn’t want the job in the first place. He came to Scotland as an attack coach and stayed to be Director of Rugby, agreeing to look after the squad for one season (a season too many are quick to forget we were largely happy with). Vern Cotter was supposed to be leading the squad into the light by now. Circumstances prevailed and we’ll need to wait to see if another Kiwi is worthy of the metaphorical kilt.
It’s also unfair to phrase the situation as Johnson being ‘promoted’ following a dismal run as head coach. Director of Rugby may well be technically ‘above’ National Team Head Coach, but it’s a different job altogether. Johnson is now charged with developing the game across Scotland at all its levels. Fans of the national team understandably bemoaned his experimental and risk taking nature, but those are exactly the qualities he’ll need if he is to be successful as Director. It is to Cotter we’ll look for consistency in the national squad, but behind the scenes we’ll need young players blooded, new tactics tried out and left-field ideas trialled. If there’s one thing all Scottish fans can agree on, it’s that the game needs a major shake-up in Scotland. None of us are served by international players sitting on the bench week after week for Glasgow, and yet it’s not Gregor Townsend’s job to supply talent for the country. He’s there to win for Glasgow. Finding and fielding that talent both North of the border and elsewhere will now be Johnson’s task, and he’ll be able to do it absent the many distractions he’ll have been faced with over the past fourteen months.
I promised positives though, and distraught though I was watching that final match, alone in a dark corner of an English bar, there are some to be taken.
Stuart Hogg’s red of course ended the contest. The Welsh press were immediately ecstatic at the scoreline, but against fourteen demoralised Scots who had experienced their lowest ebb at international level and had just lost their fullback, the truth is the scoreline should have hit sixty or seventy. The fact that it did not is testament to Scotland. The boys in blue made 115 tackles, but forced the dragons facing them to make 165. They conceded 20 turnovers, but won back 15. The enjoyed 55% and 58% of possession and territory respectively. They beat the oft-glorified Welsh scrum, and though their 9 penalties were too high for this level, they forced the home team into giving away 12.
Wales won the match by running through gaps, and with Scotland’s last man no doubt greetin’ in the changing room, there were very large gaps indeed. Wales made 16 clear breaks to Scotland’s 4, but each time a Scottish player ran through he had seven backs to combat him. The Welsh didn’t and whilst they cannot be blamed for playing the opposition that was presented to them, they cannot take much pride in it either.
Of course as Scott Johnson told us back when everyone still liked him, statistics are a bit like a bikini in showing you a lot, but not the whole package. Scotland’s successful Soviet warfare of last year, dropping back to the last and then striking back with impunity was seen only in one stat; the scoreline. All others pointed towards their demise so it would be right to look at these more recent numbers with a pinch of salt. They are there for the viewing, however.
There have been lows this year that made Scotland fans feel like extras in Crimson Tide as the sub begins to crush under the ocean’s pressure. There have been limited highs, but highs nonetheless. When certain changes were made, our lineout was impenetrable. Those same changes took a faltering scrum and made it mercilessly boss the French around the mud of Murrayfield. Alex Dunbar is surely the brightest young star of the tourney, but Chris Fusaro has nothing to be ashamed of either, being one of the few (or do I mean ‘two’) rays of hope in the most horrific Calcutta Cup match of recent times. Jim Hamilton had a stand-out tourney and hopefully silenced most of his frequent critics. Matt Scott may do well to remember he isn’t quite big enough to bulldoze through players of Paul O’Connell’s stature, but I’m reminded somewhat of a young Sean Lamont and he has only improved with age. We’ve seen we have strength in the backs; no, not as much as others but more than we’re used to and considering only about fifty people play regular rugby in Scotland, that’s heartening.
Others are better placed than I to judge the up and coming unseen talent of this season, and yet more will hold a greater knowledge than me of the SRU’s failing’s at lower levels that hamper us at the top (though killing the Reivers was surely a grievous error), but from what we saw on the pitch this year, it’s not all doom and gloom.
As a final note I’ve refrained from passing judgment on Hogg’s red thus far and I’m not going to do so now. What matters is he screwed up and we all paid the price. Those calling for an extended ban however, I can’t understand for a moment. Hogg is arguably our best hope for the future. He’s a man at an age that means for a while yet I’ll describe him as a kid, and he behaved like one, and he’s been punished. There may be more to follow tomorrow but we didn’t come second-to-last in this tournament because of one young player. One day however, we may finish considerably higher because of him.
If ever there was a safe colour, it’s blue. Blue speaks of consistency, conservatism, safety and professionalism. Blue however, takes on an entirely different meaning when it’s coupled with a thistle over your heart. Particularly when done in the middle of England during the Six Nations.
There are a hundred reasons I could list stating why for me the Six Nations is the greatest tournament in the world. I could talk about the absence of prima donnas who flop to the floor and scream blue murder every time someone farts in their direction in hopes of securing a penalty. I could talk about players who listen to the referee and do as he says. There’s the unpredictability of a tournament where Italy can beat France and a country as small as Wales can win the Grand Slam. Probably more important than all of this though is the inclusiveness. Throughout the course of the tournament over the years I’ve seen Finns supporting the Irish, Indians cheer on the Scots and Canadians root for the Italians. And whilst for 80 minutes yesterday I was termed a “Jockanese infiltrator” surrounded by the Auld Enemy who proudly wore the Red Rose and sang God Save the Queen to the rafters all the while reminding me that my home nation was nothing more than a province of England and due to centuries of rape and pillage I was practically English myself, post match I was one of the lads, part of the crew and hugely welcomed by all.
Part of this was undoubtedly because I was watching it in the right locale. Derby isn’t a city famed for its rugby pedigree; indeed to hear anything about sport beyond the latest happenings at Pride Park is nothing short of a minor miracle in the city centre. As a result it’s tough to find a good place to watch the rugby, still moreso if you’re just as interested in Italy as you are England. Like every English town Derby has ‘sports bars’ but what this translates to is a promise to be able to see whatever football Sky Sports are showing at the weekend. Even Walkabout which should surely qualify as a rugby lover’s bar would rather show Manchester United on the big screen with useless commentary blaring throughout the place and leave those of us more interested in an oval ball off in one corner huddled round a widescreen trying desperately to decipher why the referee’s given a penalty as we listen to yet another opinion on why Wayne Rooney is a great sportsman.
Part of me doesn’t mind this. I like football as a game but the sport’s lost its allure for me over the years. Be it Redknapp’s taxes, Rooney’s temper, the aforementioned divers or really anything to do with John Terry, I can’t look on the Premiership as an admirable competition anymore. And this is to say nothing of the fans. Football’s greatest plus – its simplicity – is also its downfall for me. All you need is a ball and a couple of jackets for goalposts and away you go. For all we’ve heard about the inflexibility of 4-4-2 and the madness of Christmas trees over the years, there are no particularly complex tactics to it. Don’t touch the ball with your hands and get it in the opposition’s net as often as possible. Done. Rugby by contrast is quantum physics. Brian Moore may disagree but no one in the world truthfully knows how the rules of a scrum work. Rolling mauls, rucks, quick line outs and kicking for territory require explanation to newcomers that make football’s offside rule seem about as complicated as typing ‘porn’ into Google. The result of this is that the simpler game attracts simpler people, and many of them are loudmouthed, racist pricks. That’s not to say that all football fans are like this or perhaps even most. Many are fine upstanding folk. Some can read. But for all the trouble I’ve seen in football stadia around the world and in bars when the match is on, I’ve never seen the same at the rugby. The very fact that it’s inaccessible; the fact that you have to think as you watch means these specimens (and I’m loathe to call them ‘people’) don’t bother unless England are in the World Cup or chasing a Grand Slam at which point they’re widely despised by the rugby fans who watch regardless of who’s on form. One of my favourite rugby memories was watching England in the World Cup Final. There was a questionable tackle which the referee decided to ignore and as a result one football fan (identified as such by the three lions on his chest) took it upon himself to swear at the screen with a decidedly distasteful rant which would have been perfectly normal had Chelsea been on. The bar, packed with people of varying nationalities who had come to watch a sporting match simply glared at the perpetrator and this was enough to shut him up for the rest of the match, minus a quiet whinge to his girlfriend about how there was no ‘atmosphere’ in the place which was quickly drowned out by a rousing rendition of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
I rarely watch Scotland play football both because lacking Sky and living in England my opportunities are limited and also because… well, they’re shite. Scotland in the rugby though, is an entirely different beast. They still lose most of their games, but the drama with which they do it is undeniable. The passion of the players is evident and the promise of every performance is enough to keep the tartan army coming back for more, despite the unlikelihood of success. Scotland have beaten World Champions, they have won tours in the South, and then they’ve celebrated that by losing to Italy at Murrayfield. It’s an agonising and yet addictive experience and everything is heightened when we play England.
The oldest international in the world is rarely an advertisement for sexy rugby, particularly when fought at Murrayfield. Dreich is a word often used by the Scots to describe the weather of Edinburgh – loosely translated it means ‘miserable’ – and this typically extends to the match where a sodden pitch and clinging mist ensure a metre-by-metre contest of the forwards for superiority. Yesterday was set to be no different. In the six times the two teams had met in Edinburgh since 2000, Scotland had won three and drawn one match. In all that they’d only scored two tries. Every supporter likes to think their home crowd is an extra man for the opposition to overcome, but Murrayfield itself is hostile to foreign teams and the acclimatised Scots can simply hammer away relentlessly in pursuit of penalties.
The result, at least to this fan, was no surprise. The English press are masterful at setting their team up as underdogs and with only two names surviving on the teamsheet from the same fixture two years ago, a new head coach and a captain with only one cap to his name, there looked to be no better opportunity in years for Scotland to win a famous victory. That wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things though. England win when it matters whereas Scotland win when the opportune moment is off taking a leak. So of course, the Scots played well, took the lead, showed some inventiveness and looked threatening at times. And England won, not least because their players appeared to remember that getting the ball over the tryline is a fairly good way of securing points. Such is the way of Scottish rugby.
So for a die-hard fan to watch his beloved team lose at home to their oldest rival whilst wearing a solitary blue shirt in a sea of white could be both painful and traumatic. Here’s the thing though; it was a great day. Truthfully I’d be nervous to do the same for a football match, particularly in town. I’d genuinely worry about getting beaten up. The rugby evokes different sentiments though, it attracts a different crowd. Regardless of who are playing and which nationality dominates the group, if I’m watching with rugby fans I’m watching with friends. The Six Nations is a tournament where patriotism is forefront but rather than divide us it brings us together in common purpose. Everyone is intensely aware of your nationality but no one thinks it matters. The spirit of competition is all. For that reason and many more, it is the greatest tournament in the world.
The past month has seen three icons of Rugby Union retire from the national game. Shane Williams, Jonny Wilkinson and Chris Paterson have all kissed goodbye to the oval ball at the highest level. Here we look back at their careers.
There can be no argument whatsoever that the diminutive Williams was one of the giants of the game. Recognised as the IRB’s Player of the Year in 2008, third in the list of all time try scorers at the top level , Wales’ top try scorer in all competitions and in total, he finished his last performance in a Welsh jersey by flipping over the line to score in the final minute of his final match.
Williams was a perfect example of how those who say rugby players must get bigger and stronger with every new generation are not only wrong, but catastrophically so. At only 5’7’’ and weighing just over eleven stone when he first pulled on the red shirt he went on to score 60 international tries and was famed for pulling points out of nothing on the pitch.
For any fan of the sport Welsh or otherwise, watching Williams run with the ball was a beautiful if often painful experience for even when part of an underperforming Welsh team, the Ospreys player could ignite the pitch with his pace and dexterity and slice apart opposing defences with apparent ease.
Williams is probably the greatest Welsh player of all time, a sure run-in for numerous lifetime achievement awards in the coming years and a man whose performances will sorely be missed in future 6 Nations and World Cups.
Where to start. The football fan’s rugby player, there’s no denying Wilko’s achievements. Setting records for the most 6 Nations points, World Cup points, international points, number of drop goals…
Ah yes, the drop goals. It’s no facetious comment to suggest that absent Wilko’s boot, England would not have won the 2003 World Cup and consistently his game changing kicks have come from open play. Whereas once the drop goal was a none-too-common and largely inconsequential event, Jonny Wilkinson made sure it became an international staple and whether this is a positive or negative (hint: it’s a negative), his impact on the game is undeniable.
Away from kicking his game has often been called into question. Neither the quickest nor the most inventive Wilkinson’s offensive play was never the most threatening even at his height and in the years that followed the successful World Cup campaign his robotic style of play struggled to sync with new setups. Defensively though, he could tackle with the best of them and to suggest he only made the international squad due to his boot is both lazy and inaccurate.
Wilko’s play was dogged by injury and he was more of an apologist for poor squad performances than any England fan would like to admit, but to look at his records alongside the amount of time the man spent on the sidelines it’s impossible to deny that he changed the face of English international rugby.
The word, ‘talisman’ is far too prevalent in sport but for the utilitarian ‘Mossy’ the title seems appropriate. Certainly there’s been no other Scottish player of the last ten years who inspired such faith in the tartan faithful. Scotland’s record cap and points holder, the only Scot to appear in four World Cups, former holder of the world record for most consecutive successful kicks; in no one else have the Scottish fans been able to consistently recognise a game changer, both in open play and from the tee.
With over 100 appearances in the blue shirt, Paterson is the most capped home nations player never to pull on a Lions jersey, a sinful omission that was most glaring in Clive Woodward’s English dominated and entirely ineffectual 2005 squad which lost all of its test matches for the first time in 22 years.
What makes Paterson’s points tally all the more impressive is the lacklustre squad with which he plays. Since the inception of the 6 Nations Scotland’s highest finish has been third, once in 2006. Traditionally battling it out with Italy for the wooden spoon, Scotland’s chronic ineffectiveness in the redzone has resulted not only in a lack of tries but a lack of opportunities for Mossy to demonstrate the most effective weapon in international rugby. His 809 points in a blue jersey compare to Wilkinson’s 1,179 for England but how much more dominant have England forwards been than the Scots? How many more opportunities has the latter had to kick over the past decade?
A Scotland team absent Paterson is like a frigate without a gunner. The Scots will look to the inconsistent Dan Parks and the young Ruaridh Jackson for replacement, but neither is capable of filling the gap left by Scotland’s best ever player.
Since I was a kid, I’ve always had an enormous amount of respect for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team and not just because my beloved Scots have failed to defeat them every single time we’ve played.* Sure, it’s currently South Africa who are World Champions and yes, Australia have frequently dominated the Kiwis but there’s always been something special about the men in black. I don’t know if it starts with the haka war dance before the match or is simply a result of their regularly mesmerising displays of strength and talent but it’s impossible to play New Zealand without a sense of awe about the occassion. There’s been a lot of talk in England of late (read, past few years) of a, “time of development,” and the national side being a, “work in progress.” New Zealand don’t bother with such things. In a country where the population is only just four million if you exclude the sheep, a national rugby team that is the definition of excellence has become the norm, year in, year out.
I can’t tell you why it is. Perhaps it’s the kiwi mentality; as Ian McCarthy wrote, New Zealanders will not do anything normally if they can do it at double the pace with a bag of rocks on their back. Their apparent obsession with fitness is certainly not Western in origin. Perhaps it has its roots in maori warrior culture; I couldn’t say. What I do know is that when crunch time arrives and Scotland play the kiwis, mr grandfather fears a loss, my father fears a loss and so do I. Throughout our accumulated years the All Blacks have been a dominant force with a reputation unmatched throughout the sport. It doesn’t matter if England field a substansially better team than us or if Ireland are away on one of their winning streaks because when my boys play anything can happen even if the odds are against us. It doesn’t even matter, as proven last Autumn if we play the World Champions because we have a pride and courage that far outstrips our bare talent. When we play the All Blacks however… then things get difficult.
I mention this first for two reasons. Firstly to educate those of you who may be ignorant regarding the greatest team sport in the world. Secondly to make it clear that what follows is not a rant because I’m miserable about a team that regularly makes Scotland look like a bunch of amateurs.**
In 1905 the All Blacks made their first tour of Britain with their first match (against Scotland) being preceded by the haka. “Ka Mate” was also performed against the Welsh who responded with a rousing rendition of their national anthem. The performance of the dance before matches was never set in stone; towards the beginning of last century it was rarely seen in New Zealand and even on the aforemention tour, it wasn’t seen at all the matches. When the Kiwis travelled they would ask to perform the haka at the home ground’s stadium and were usually indulged.
“Ka Mate” (pronounced kah-mah-tay) is by far and away the best known haka around the world. It’s an arguably impressive war cry or ridiculous dance depending on how you see it. Whilst the sight of fifteen grown men slapping their pecs and sticking their tongues out may not sound too cool, I daresay it takes a degree of balls to stand up to even the smallest of the All Blacks whilst he’s chanting like a madman. Ka Mate as told by Wikipedia refers to, “a wily plan to defeat the aims of an enemy,” and the site goes on to tell of the, “cunning strategem,” of Chief Te Rauparaha in 1810 which works, I guess. The Chief’s story however, essentially boiled down to him running from his enemies and, quite literally, hiding under the skirts of a woman. Not the song I’d choose to strike fear into the hearts of my foes.
“Ko Niu Tireni” is an alternate haka with somewhat more inspirational lyrics. “We shall stand fearless, We shall stand exulted in spirit, We shall climb to the heavens, We shall attain the zenith the utmost heights.” Much better except to my knowledge this was only performed for one tour of Britain back in the 20s.
Last up we have the, “Kapa o Pango,” and this is where the fun begins. Like Ko Niu Tireni it has considerably better lyrics than Ka Mate – “The team in black is rumbling here, stand up to the fear,” – but it also has… a gesture. First performed against South Africa in 2005, the Kapa o Pango is much more aggressive in spirit than the more common Ka Mate featuring an extended intro by the captain and is finished off by the entire team drawing a thumb down their throats. Odds are the imagery you’re thinking of after reading that is the exact same one everyone else in the rugby community drew as well. The NZRU responded to complaints regarding this threatening gesture by conducting a review which eventually concluded that the action coupled with the last line of the chant – “Ha” short for, “hauora” – indicated the drawing of life into the lungs. Considering this is preceded by the line, “Darkness falls,” I’d call foul, but let’s accept the Kiwis defence for the sake of moving on.
Over time the All Blacks got pretty defensive about the haka. It was performed everywhere and as a result, it can be argued, it lost its appeal and effectiveness. in ’96 the Aussies, suitably bored by the same old routine, let the All Blacks get on with jumping around while they retired to the far end of the pitch and did some warm up excercises. The All Blacks responded with a furious performance and gained a record score over their old adversaries which, let’s be honest, is the manly thing to do. Good on ’em.
The Kiwis defence of their ritual over the past decade however, has become pathetic. in ’97, England player Richard Cockerill was vilified for standing toe-to-toe with his opposite number as the haka was performed. Cockerill was eventually pushed away by a fearful referee and his explanation that he was simply responding to the challenge (the haka is a war dance, after all) was largely ignored by the International Rugby Board who, when the following World Cup came around in ’99, specifically wrote to all teams involved on behalf of New Zealand and threatened them with disciplinary action if the haka was not, ‘respected.’
Hold on a second. What started off as a quaint/impressive/enjoyable tradition before odd games had now gotten to the stage where the All Blacks wanted to perform it wherever they were, however they liked and if anyone had the gall to stand up to this challenge, they were being unfair?
In 2005, Wales welcomed New Zealand to Cardiff a century after their first game together. To celebrate this, the Welsh planned a repeat of the opening events in the first game, namely the singing of God Defend New Zealand followed by the haka with Hen Wlad fy Nhadau finishing off the opening. The All Blacks agreed however after noting the positive effects on the crowd, the Welsh planned the same thing for 2006. Bear in mind that this was what Americans would call an exhibition match. Bear in mind that it was in the Welsh stadium, in the Welsh captial, in Wales, where the Welsh were hosts. Got that sorted?
The Kiwis refused to repeat the events, instead wanting to perform the haka after the singing of both national anthems. When the Welsh wouldn’t concede, the All Blacks behaved like petulant children and performed the dance in their dressing room.
Last year in the Autumn internationals, Wales again caused controversy (screw what the English say – I love those boys ) by refusing to move until the All Blacks did. What resulted was a two-minute stand-off between the teams with a clearly nervous referee in the middle. The deadlock was eventually broken by the All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw who was praised by his coach as a man of character. Giles Smith of the Times gets my vote of confidence though: “Let’s face it; your guy blinked.” All through the next week papers in both hemispheres worried about how England would respond to the Haka – would there be trouble? In the end the England players simply stood facing the haka as usual whilst the 80,000 fans of Twickenham raised the roof with a rendition of, Swing low Sweet Chariot. Still it made the news. Are you honestly telling me New Zealand expect to go to the opposition’s ground in front of opposition fans, perform a war dance and don’t expect a response?
Again in 2006, the then All Blacks captain had been accused of striking a club team mate over the head with a handbag. Shortly afterwards a TV station in Australia ran an ad showing the haka being performed (after digital manipulation) with all the players holding handbags. The reaction was not the good natured humour you might hope for. It caused national outrage with the All Blacks assistant coach whining about how it was disrespectful to Maori culture.
Seriously, don’t get me fucking started. The haka is performed as testament to the proud maori traditions of New Zealand? This coming from the same body who dumped half their maori players when they went to South Africa because the locals weren’t keen on the All-Blacks actually living up to their name? An organisation from a country where intergration has never been easily accepted, even recently? Please.
The haka is at best, an entertaining and rousing display of pride and passion before a rugby match. At its worst as it has become in recent years, it is an arrogant and aggressive piece of psychological warfare that causes division and strife like nothing else in the otherwise sanguine world of rugby union. It has evolved from a once admirable and enjoyable tradition into a symbol of hypocricy – it doesn’t even enjoy full support in its homeland.
Following the Wales stand-off last year, Kiwi captain Ma’a Nonu admitted to being upset at the reaction and stated that his main worry was for the fans back home who may have been offended. Ma’a, if I can watch your boys regularly demolish my heroes and still show appreciation and respect for all involved, then you can take a couple of Welsh guys looking you in the eye.
And if you can’t… there’s an easy solution.