GHOSTS OF BATTLES PAST
During the World Cup Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz). This article was first published in Rugby News September 29th.
You don’t really want to get too political ahead of Saturday’s clash at Eden Park, but rumour has it the Scotland players are on a big bonus to beat England and the money will be paid by the English taxpayer, who funds most things north of the border.
The trouble is you cannot imagine Martin Johnson firing up his English team for the Auckland game by citing an unfair tax system, while Andy Robinson, his Scotland counterpart, would rather chew off his arm, which to be fair he frequently tries to do in the coach’s box, than wear a kilt, as the former England boss is as West Country English as dry cider.
However you can bet the Scots have been digging up all the old slights, perceived or otherwise, through history. The spirit of Robert the Bruce and the Battle of Bannockburn will be summoned and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s face will have been painted on Scottish tackle bags this week.
It’s a load of old sheep guts really. The idea that our Celtic cousins have the advantage of passion and patriotism because they blindsided King Edward’s English army in a Stirlingshire village 700 years ago is a little fanciful.
Never let reality get in the way of a good cliche, but rest assured, 12000 miles from the action, I shall be shouting “Remember Flodden” in my Sussex local on England’s south coast, confusing mates with no knowledge of military history. Don’t you mean Foden?
Ah Ben Foden. A downside of following the World Cup from afar is you have to read the ghost written thoughts of players. Over the years I have been Francois Pienaar, Joel Stransky, Ieuan Evans, Serge Blanco, Mike Catt, Matt Stevens and Steve Thompson.
I even once got the word ‘existential’ in the England hooker’s column, which rather gave the ghosting game away, while Blanco, so upset after Australia’s win over France in the 1999 World Cup final, turned his phone off and the only word in my notebook was merde. That particular column was poetic license and an existentialist poet at that.
Foden, in two successive weekly columns for The Sunday Telegraph, has joyfully told us his girlfriend Una Healy, a pop star with a girl band called The Saturdays, is pregnant.
So we now know what the England full-back gets up to on a Saturday, although Foden, rather worryingly, told us “the pregnancy was a little bit unexpected.” Too much rugby and not enough listening in biology class Ben.
Many congratulations to the couple and Foden gave that familiar cradle-rocking gesture when he touched down against Romania, but it’s rugby insight I want, not extracts from Mother & Baby magazine.
The biggest England mystery, until officially announced as part of the squad, has been the whereabouts of Thomas Waldrom. Was the tank engine on the South Island, the North Island or the Island of Sodor? If England wears its change strip again at least Waldrom gets to be an all black.
Posted by: , on September 30th 2011 on 08:10pm0 Comments
HELL FREEZES OVER
During the World Cup, Rupert Bates is writing a weekly column from the UK for Rugby News New Zealand magazine (www.rugby.co.nz)
This article was first published in Rugby News September 15.
We heard the thudding sound back in England. Jonny Wilkinson was doing his best impression of Dobby, the house elf in Harry Potter, who routinely beats himself up.
‘Bad Jonny’ chanted the England first-five as he repeatedly bashed his head against his hotel room wall. Meanwhile the new from Hades was that, as well as Wilkinson missing five penalties, hell had indeed frozen over.
There were thudding noises across the living rooms and bars of England too – the sound of jaws hitting the floor. Even when England plays like scalded, neutered cats against fired-up Pumas, there is always the comfort of ‘our Jonny’ slotting his kicks. Not any more. Goodness to win the World Cup England may have to be creative. That wasn’t part of the plan.
Even the relief of replacement scrum-half Ben Youngs skating over for the game-changing try against Argentina had England supporters screaming “ground it!” as he insisted on getting under the posts and almost ran out of dead-ball area. Fair play to the Leicester man; he thought surely even Wilkinson won’t miss if I get it beneath the sticks.
It’s not much fun shouting at the television 12000 miles from the rugby planet’s biggest party. Envious? You bet. Should I leave a note for the wife and slip off to the airport? She’s half Kiwi; she’ll understand.
The England team may not have scared anybody on opening week, but Brian Moore did, which given he makes Dobby look like David Beckham is not surprising. The former England rake, looking for his Dunedin digs, knocked on the wrong door and terrified an Otago granny. At least he did not say: “Hello, I’m an old English hooker working here for six weeks.”
Apparently New Zealand brothel keepers are expecting the best trade to come from England fans, presumably dressed in England’s change strip just in case the other half spots them on Google Earth. Playing in all black, whatever the motives, was crass in the extreme and with the numbers peeling off the jerseys within five minutes England was as sartorially shabby as its rugby.
How we laugh when we remind any New Zealander we know that it has been 24 long years; that should they choke again, but this time in their own backyard, Dan Carter will be lucky to get a job mustering sheep, yet alone a backline.
We cannot decide whether to mock the Haka as a faux-warrior dance, or respect it for its noble traditions. Well I’ve made a decision to follow the All Blacks as my second team – and not just as a nod to a Tauranga father-in-law foolish enough to move to Australia.
A lot of guff is spoken about a sport defining a culture, but in the case of New Zealand it is achingly true. I cheer for England, but should Richie McCaw lift the World Cup next month it will be one of the greatest moments in all sport. I just wish I was there.
Posted by: , on September 21st 2011 on 06:52pm0 Comments
JONNY WILKINSON TALKS EXCLUSIVELY TO EVERYTHING RUGBY
The sight of Jonny Wilkinson in his flip-flops padding through the oak-panelled corridors of Pennyhill Park – the country house hotel that doubles as England’s training base – causes dowagers to swoon over their afternoon tea.
He is the only player they recognise. “Jonny and Zara make a lovely couple,” coos one duchess, refusing to believe it is actually the big bloke with the broken nose married to the Queen’s granddaughter.
Before Wilkinson left for the biggest rugby show on earth, the England outside-half doffed his beanie to grass roots rugby, from the minis upwards; how he first caught the oval bug and the modest obsessive was born.
“I’ve been naturally drawn to the sport since I was four,” said Wilkinson.
By the age of seven he could be found practising his goal kicking at Farnham rugby club in Surrey until it was too dark to see the posts.
Wilkinson admits he was obsessed from an early age with what he wanted to do in life and even wrote his ambitions down, convinced that would help him achieve them.
Diary of Jonny aged seven and three-quarters: “ Drop the goal to win the World Cup for England.” He probably traced drawings from Gray’s Anatomy so he knew the names of all the injuries he was destined to suffer.
Yes Wilkinson would love to win the World Cup again in New Zealand, but he also hopes the tournament inspires a new generation of seven-year-olds to kick rugby balls in the twilight.
“Even as a child I loved the team ethic rugby promoted and required. It is a special kind of spirit inherent in a contact sport,” said Wilkinson.
“When kids join a rugby club they start a journey – in sport and in life. Individual accolades are great and you are very proud of them. But even as a small child, there was nothing better than being part of a team experiencing the highs and lows.”
It would take a particular seven-year-old to share Wilkinson’s drive and introspection, but it was clearly a healthy introspection, for his greatest strength as one of English rugby’s all-time greats and heading into his fourth World Cup is his ability to operate in a bubble and yet bathe in the team ethic.
“You set your own goals, but you help others achieve theirs.”
Wilkinson is both easy and difficult to talk to. He is always ready to chat. Not in a brash, ‘look at me’ way, but simply because natural affability, coupled with self-analysis, means he is desperate to answer the question.
However such is his intensity the response becomes almost a dream sequence. Ask a question, go for a couple of pints at a Surrey pub and come back to find him still deep in a soliloquy, not always easy to unravel.
There’s been Buddha and quantum physics along the way. But now the 32-year-old, complete with Mediterranean tan from Toulon, appears as relaxed and contented as he’s ever been – not to mention super-fit, taking the honours in the England squad 40-metre shuttle runs prior to departure for New Zealand.
Wilkinson admits fame has at times been claustrophobic. “It is easy under the glare to get results driven and lose sight of life in between. To think that unless you win and meet expectations, what you have done is pointless and wasted. Very few people can stare media attention in the eye without blinking. Society is led by it.”
Wilkinson says the key to dealing with intense scrutiny is “taking time out and re-assessing where you are" so you are “thriving under pressure, not just surviving it.”
“As a person and a rugby player always prepare the best and give of your best.”
All Black Dan Carter, the number 10 under the fiercest spotlight in New Zealand, also began his rugby journey as a child, running home from school to kick through the posts his father made him for his eighth birthday.
“Guys like Dan Carter deserve to be held in the highest regard. Every game he plays with pride, heart and professionalism,” said Wilkinson.
“Win or lose, despite people’s reactions, does not change the fact you have given everything you’ve got.”
The results on the rugby field, fortunately, were not as important to Wilkinson the child, as Wilkinson the professional.
“But even at the highest level the enjoyment does not come down simply to winning and losing, but in the satisfaction as a team working together and progressing. Pleasure is derived from constant challenges in a group environment.”
“It does not matter how long you play for, you always find out something more about yourself and what you are able to achieve.”
You sense the next few weeks may be another obsessive journey, but this time Wilkinson will smell the roses along the way.
Posted by: , on September 02nd 2011 on 03:16pm0 Comments