As England prepares to take on Fiji in the opening match of the Rugby World Cup in 48 hours, the question on everyone’s lips is, does anyone aside from the English actually want England to win the thing?
Well, the science is in – and it backs up Ali Williams’ controversial comments that basically everyone south of the equator wants England to not win the World Cup.
Did I say science? Well, the next best thing anyway… A dodgy Facebook sample of 50-odd respondents. Hardly scientific in the true sense, but let’s just say The Roar budget for R&D isn’t what it used to be.
This whole thing started out innocently enough. An English mate of mine posted on his timeline recently after Williams’ England outburst in L’Equipe, saying, “Ali Williams once again showing he has no class or imagination. Keep on clucking you turkey.”
A hilariously pithy observation, and chock full of delicious paranoia (aside from the obvious correction that turkeys don’t cluck, they gobble).
Anyway, I was forced to go and read Williams’ comments for myself, and I found them distinctly underwhelming.
Apart from the personal observations about the Twickenham crowd and the intellectually-limited hypotheses about the empirical history of England, Williams’ comments pretty much boiled down to his one theme that “England are the team everyone wants to beat… it will be a dark day if they win the Rugby World Cup”.
While I’m not sure that it will constitute a “dark day” as such, it’s certainly an outcome I’d prefer not to see, in much the same way that I’d prefer not to have seen Stuart Broad skittle Australia with 8-15 in the Ashes.
And if an amateur Facebook poll has any science in it at all, a fair cross-section of my contacts agree.
The question I asked was simple: “Comment below with the name of the country you would least like to win the Rugby World Cup.”
The responses are still coming in as I write, but let’s go with the number as of now.
Bearing in mind there are 20 teams out there, you’d expect a bit of a spread. But from 49 responses, South Africa got three votes and I had to scroll down to 20 or so before I got a vote for France, who also got three.
Romania got one. Wales got one. Australia got two. And “Oh FFS” got one, predictably from an English supporter, so we’ll count that as another one for Australia.
Even if your maths is as rudimentary as mine you will have tallied about 11, which leaves 38 votes to go. Current world champions New Zealand got 10, and that left England with a mammoth 28 from 49.
Another way of putting that is to say that from 20 possible countries that respondents could have chosen, England cornered an amazing 57 per cent of the vote. So far.
Now for some of us apparently, mostly those from north of the 40th parallel, that is news. I can say with quite some certainty that for those south of the equator, it’s not.
But before my entire readership departs in opposite directions (the English because they don’t like what I’m saying, and the rest because they’ve heard it before), let me get to the nub of the matter.
My contention isn’t that that people shouldn’t like England – it is sort of a shame that they apparently don’t, actually.
My real question is, why don’t Australians like England more?
After all, I’ve liked plenty of English sportspeople in the past. Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe, Lennox Lewis and Steve Redgrave were all champions who excelled on that rare and compelling recipe of talent and extraordinary dedication.
At one stage during the 2007 Rugby World Cup I admitted on The Roar that I actually admired the English rugby team.
I said at the time, of the much pilloried England XV:
“I’ll be cheering for South Africa this weekend, because somewhere deep down in my DNA, it is imprinted that I never cheer for England. But should the Poms win, I will quietly applaud the spirit shown by their team. A team who was often outclassed, a team who made the best of a limited set of gifts, a team who had a largely ordinary set of aged players and a poor old coach… And yet, a team who, when it has mattered, have simply refused to lose.”
In light of that, there’s no doubt that English rugby has the ability to draw in admiring supporters from time to time, but for the most part they struggle to engage anyone east of the white cliffs of Dover.
So what is it? Is it the weather perhaps? Couldn’t be. There are places in India that get 467 inches of rain a year, and I’m indifferent.
It’s fair to say that history probably plays a part – national history that is, not so much rugby history. After all, just about every major rugby nation has either had a war with, or been sent to war by, England.
The traditional animosity between the English and the Boers in South Africa for instance, deriving from colonialism and bitter warfare, resulted in several dismissive coinages, including the uber-basic “soutpiel” or salt-penis, referring to the Englishman with one foot in England and one in Africa, with the relevant appendage still dangling in the Atlantic. No wonder the South Africans hold a grudge.
As for the Australians, the memories of Breaker Morant and the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign run deep and are part of the national mythology.
As Susan Gardner wrote in her essay, ‘Can you imagine anything more Australian?’:
The most notorious case involved a special anti-commando unit, raised by Australians to fight in the wild northern Transvaal, and called the Bush Veldt Carbineers. Six of its officers were court-martialled for multiple murder (after receiving orders to shoot prisoners)…two of the Australian officers, Lieutenants ‘Breaker’ Morant and Handcock, were executed in February 1902, on the orders of Kitchener. The affair caused an outcry in Australia.
Morant himself was introspective: “This is what comes of Empire building.”
Handcock was blunt: “If you’re mug enough to join a Pommy regiment, you can take what’s coming to you.”
The implication, which has endured for a hundred years or more, is that the English were not to be trusted.
But that is life, and this is just sport. Surely such ancient stereotypes don’t carry over to the rugby field? Perhaps not, but it may be the existing prejudices are exacerbated by simple issues of style.
Amazing as it may sound, while Australians regard the French as thugs (John Eales threatened to lead his men from the field in the World Cup final in 1999 if the French didn’t stop eye-gouging), the ambivalence is outweighed by the Australian admiration for their running game.
It is doubtful that an Australian has ever been eye-gouged or bag-snatched by an Englishman, but the Australian would still rather play rugby like a Frenchman. The French and the Australians share a flair and a love of running rugby that few nations can match on their day.
By contrast, the English style has traditionally been an effective, dour, field-position strategy. This led to an odd situation where Australians actually felt sorry for, and coveted, Jeremy Guscott. Every Australian rugby fan born before 1980 spent at least one lazy afternoon wondering how brilliant the prince of centres could have been in a backline with the likes of Mark Ella, Tim Horan and David Campese, instead of Stuart Barnes, Will Carling and Jonathan Webb.
On to 1995, and the enduring image of Rob Andrew shaking his fists above his head after drop-goalling Australia out of the World Cup at Newlands doesn’t help matters. An optimistic Wallabies side was stunned by England 25-22 and had to endure the ignominy of greeting their own supporters at Perth airport on the way home, just as the fans were setting out to watch them in the semis.
It’s these sort of memories which make England a hard team to like – for Wallabies supporters at least.
The English fans that are still with me are only here for one reason – to revel in the mental sugar-rush they get from any conversation which mentions the year 2003.
So let me not be the enabler, and just say that Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal was yet another bitter pill to swallow.
Surveys aside, while some 60 per cent of Australians will say that the team they least want to win the World Cup is England, they don’t really mean it. England to Australians is like a big brother – always big and strong, terribly hard to beat, and after years of bullying, is suddenly nice to you when you least expect it.
On that basis it’s not surprising that Australians carry a little bit of little-brother prickliness with them everywhere they go, and rile up when England is mentioned.
But also on that basis, we know you’ll understand when Australians start cheering for Fiji at 5am on Monday morning. After all, you know we love you like a brother, but there’s years of bullying that just has to be paid for.
Alright mate? Alright.