Watching the All Blacks thrash the US Eagles at Soldier Field in Chicago took old Spiro back to the far-off days (believe me, they are distant memories) of film nights at the convent boarding school, Star of the Sea, he attended during his primary school days.
The link is with the films that the nuns deemed acceptable for the little boys and the young novices to watch. There couldn’t be any kissing.
When there was kissing during the usual run of biographies we had to watch (Madame Curie, Disraeli and George Gershwin) the projectionist nun would put her hand across the lens so we,the little boys and young novices, could see nothing too exciting for young loins to endure.
Preferably, too, the films had a Catholic angle to them.
So a perfect film for us, and one we had to watch a number of times as a consequence, was the film biography of Knute Rockne, the great american football coach at Notre Dame, the famous Catholic university in Indiana.
There was no kissing, plenty of healthy football and many fine platitudes about healthy, Christian living from the priest-educators at Notre Dame.
There was a moving scene in the film when George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan), Rockne’s match-winning genius of a running back and defensive player who never had a touchdown scored directly against him, is on his deathbed. He tells his coach that sometime somewhere, when Notre Dame has to win a crucial match, that he ask his boys to “win one for The Gipper”.
This film became a sporting university for me. It taught me the crucial importance of a great coach in the creation of a world-beating team. Then there was the role of emotion and tradition in arousing the passion of the players to perform beyond what was considered their capabilities.
Also, I could see the point of the film how Rockne was an inventive coach. He made the forward pass a lethal weapon in Notre Dame’s attacking play. And he orchestrated the set plays of his back field, The Four Horseman, who ran rampant for three years through defuddled defences.
What I learnt from all this is that great coaches and players can impose their patterns and genius on the play to win matches for their sides, even against opponents who might, in theory at least, be more than their match on paper.
One of the great victories The Four Horsemen (Grantland Rice’s memorable phrase) achieved was at Soldier Field against Army. This was not the ‘win one for The Gipper’ victory celebrated in the film but an earlier triumph mentioned in passing. This is where Soldier Field became ingrained in my memory.
According to the movie, Rockne got the idea of orchestrating the play of his back four from watching the Rockettes at Radio City. Being obsessed with rugby rather than american football, I took these insights about Rockne into thinking about rugby when I began to write about the game.
One of my first concepts (and my most innovative idea) was the notion that attacking sides in rugby should have a series of rehearsed plays, like The Four Horsemen, so that every player knew what was going to happen next. I envisaged teams running a series of plays in the one movement.
I wrote about this a lot in the 1970s when teams rarely had more than a couple of phases in their various plays. But why not, I argued, have rugby players, like their american football counterparts, use a play book of numerous moves which they would run through, with every player having his particular assignment, in phase after phase until a try is scored.
We had something like this when the All Blacks ran up 12 tries against the US Eagles at Soldier Field. They had a precision, with many of these plays, especially when they moved the ball out wide, that Rockne would have recognised and enjoyed.
In an essay on Rugby In The Future (which was written in 1978) I wrote the following.
“The answer to the question ‘Where in the world is rugby going?’ can be made along these lines: ‘Everywhere in the world’. Rugby will never achieve the total internationalism of soccer. It is, at the basic level, a more complicated game and therefore less easily played in a kick-around fashion.
“But every year rugby is becoming more international and inside twenty years the All Blacks will have played, and hopefully won, their first full internationals against countries like Russia and the United States.”
The All Blacks have yet to play Russia but in the last decade they have played the US Eagles a couple of times. And last weekend the two teams played at the fabled gridiron field Soldier Field, built as a memorial to the soldiers of WWI, before a sell-out crowd of 62,000.
Rugby is now, with soccer, the fastest growing sport in the United States. They have something like 550,000 men, women, girls and boys playing the game.
There is talk of a professional league starting up soon. The game is exploding in the colleges and many schools are beginning to make rugby part of their sports program.
It is clear from the last weekend’s results that the US Eagles have a lot of work to do to improve their current world ranking of 17. But in the opening 10 or so minutes of both halves, the US Eagles showed that for a short time, anyway, they could be competitive. The trick for them is to stretch this 20 minutes of excellent rugby into 80 minutes of sustained play.
This will come as more and more players graduating to the US Eagles come to the team from having played rugby from their earliest days.
And it should be remembered that last year the US Eagles were competitive against a very strong Maori All Blacks side. Last weekend, a weaker Maori All Blacks side (on paper at least) monstered Japan’s Brave Blossoms 61-21 in an eight-try riot of scoring.
What we can take from this is that the US Eagles will be a force in world rugby around the 2023 Rugby World Cup, which might even be held in the United States.
Right now, it looks like the usual suspects, the Springboks, All Blacks, Wallabies and England, will be the strongest Rugby World Cup contenders in 2015.
In the second rank of contenders, and in a possible order of merit, I’d put Ireland, France, Wales and Argentina.
But this is all conjecture. We will probably have a better insight into other possibilities (if there are any such teams) after the November series of Tests that start this weekend and engage the best of the northern hemisphere teams against the best of the southern hemisphere teams.
This weekend, for instance, Fox Sports is televising Italy-Samoa, Wales-Australia, France-Fiji and Ireland-South Africa, while Setanta will show England-New Zealand.
This is a rich line-up of Tests, and a sort of mini World Cup round a year before the real thing. While I sometimes bag some of the commentators on Fox Sports, I believe that all rugby supporters should be eternally grateful for the network running such a comprehensive coverage of our game.
Back to the weekend, though. Ireland has been a team that has not delivered at Rugby World Cup tournaments. Next year could be their break through year. Last year, they led the All Blacks with time up only to concede a try and a conversion from the touchline that gave the visitors an unlikely victory.
The Test against the Springboks will be a great test for both teams.
The Springboks need to win a lot more out of Africa than they have in the past. Admittedly, they won the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France. But they need to be more consistent winners away from their home crowds to have a high confidence of being a Rugby World Cup winner again.
For Ireland, as for all of the European sides, they have to start defeating the southern hemisphere sides, abroad and especially at home, to create the belief that a Rugby World Cup victory is a distinct possibility, rather than a distinct impossibility.
England have tried to create Twickenham, where the Rugby World Cup 2015 final will be played, as a fortress. They have inflicted one of the two defeats Steve Hansen’s All Blacks have conceded. That was at Twickenham, two years ago. Last year, the All Blacks defeated them, though, at their fortress which evened things up.
The team that wins on Saturday night will take a great deal of strength from the result. As Sun Tzu says, “The battle is won before the battle is fought”. For either England or the All Blacks, a victory at the weekend will be a huge psychological advantage going into the Rugby World Cup 2015 tournament.
England, Wales and Australia are in the same pool, the Pool of Death. Two into three doesn’t go. One of these three teams is not going to win the World Cup. This arithmetic gives a special point to the Wales-Australia Test at Cardiff.
The Wallabies have defeated Wales in their last nine Tests. You would think that if Wales can’t stop this winning sequence at home at the weekend, they won’t be able to do so next year.
Winning is a habit, and so is losing. This is the problem that Wales is creating for itself with its constant losses to the Wallabies. But if the habit is broken by Wales with a victory then all the pressure for next year goes on the Wallabies.
That is the thing about sport (and politics): roosters one day and feather-dusters the next if results turn against them.