Watching 26 men take to a rugby field rather than full complicate of 30 is a little like reading The Latham Diaries with the expurgation of all the swear words. There is still much to savour: the precision of the attacks; the brutality meted out to opponents; even the unorthodox wing play, left and right. But it is like seeing a conga line without the suck-holes or a licker in search of an arse.
Revisiting the battle of the footballing codes in these pages a few weeks back, the former Labor leader was at his vituperative best when he compared rugby union’s global celebration to an afternoon in a nursing home — ‘inert, boring and disconcertingly close to death’. Sitting impatiently throughout the ‘try-less dirge otherwise known as Australia-v-Ireland’ with his stopwatch in hand, he diligently observed that the ‘scrums, penalties, and goal-kicks absorbed 25 times more game time than backline passing movements’. Warming to the theme of an essay from last year — in which he claimed that union was ‘locked in a time warp of unlimited tackles, zero-metre defensive lines and spectator boredom’ — he argued that newcomers could be forgiven for thinking that the game’s true purpose was ‘to maximise the number of times the ref blows his whistle’.
Admittedly, much of what he wrote, as is frequently the case, was a bull’s-eye hit. Too many games are refereed by officials who like the sound of their own whistle. Too many scrums have the structural fortitude of a crumpled pudding. As for the precise technicalities, I started playing rugby more than 30 years ago and still cannot fathom all the rules.
Still, most of Mark Latham’s arrows landed a long way from the target. Judging the entire world cup on the Ireland/Australia game alone, for instance, is a little like assessing his leadership on the basis of that handshake with John Howard. In some ways, I suppose, the two are analogous: an underdog trying to put the green and gold favourite off his game with muscle and snarling menace — although for Ireland, the arm-wrestling tactics worked.
No, Latham has badly erred. Despite the unnecessary tooting of the referees’ whistles and all those imploding scrums, the Rugby World Cup has been a fabulous advertisement for a game that is clearly on the up and by far the most satisfying of all the winter codes. Fans have delighted at some epic contests, mesmerising running play, almost superhuman defence and a tournament that has favoured teams, like the All Blacks and Wales, who have been faithful to William Webb Ellis’s founding heresy: that the ball should be transferred from hand to hand rather than hoofed aimlessly
down the field.
There have been riches aplenty. Has Latham not marvelled at the scintillating running of the All Blacks’ new star Israel Dagg or the pre-injury silkiness of Dan Carter, surely the most complete player in any of the footballing codes? Did he not watch the rampaging Tongans, the bullocking Pumas or the young charges from over the Severn Bridge, with their league-like athleticism and dynamism? Did he not catch a glimpse of the Canadian front row, with their Old Testament beards, the Welsh fans dressed as daffodils, or
Mike Tindall’s nose?
And surely, post-publication, he is now travelling the Damascene road after watching the Wallabies somehow fend off the Springboks, a performance so valiantly heroic that it made Wellington the
site of an unlikely Australian Waterloo.
Has his heart not been stirred by the thumping strains of ‘Flower of Scotland’, ‘La Marseillaise’, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ or ‘Ireland’s Call’? And what of the haka? The NRL could deploy an entire squadron of Black Hawk helicopters at the next Grand Final, but it could never compare with the traditional Maori war dance, with its controlled fury and dignified rage. Union has always been about the complete entertainment package, after all — off-field and on, pre-game and post.
Perhaps he simply has a bad case of World Cup envy, for at an international level league simply cannot compete in terms of drama, history or a sense of occasion. Where is his code’s Mandela moment, when the South African President joyfully handed the Webb Ellis trophy to Springboks captain Francois Pienaar at the end of the Rainbow Nation World Cup? Where is its QE2 moment, when the Queen of Australia presented the cup to John Eales on the very day that Australia decided to retain her services as head of state? Where, even, is its John Howard moment, when Latham’s great rival grumpily handed over the cup to victorious England captain Martin Johnson at Homebush in 2003? On the handshake front, perhaps that would have been a day for getting up close and personal, à la Latham.
Perhaps this is simply about class,
a sporting caste system that operates differently in Australia than it does in my homeland, where code allegiances are a matter more of geography rather than social status. But surely he would concede that union remains the most physically egalitarian of codes. What other global sport provides such a welcome home for all creatures great and small, whether a squat prop, a towering lock, a lithe centre, a flying wing or an unhinged hooker (a description, admittedly, that borders on the tautological)?
Indubitably, there could be more tries. But for some union fans, especially in the northern hemisphere, they have a scarcity value, and, like luxury goods, are seen as so very precious partly because they are so very rare. However, this tournament has seen tries aplenty, along with the relentless fluency of union play, with phase after phase and attack after attack, that makes the game at once so beautiful and so brutish, so refined and so rough.
I greatly enjoy league but love union, and believe that the mind can accommodate the notion that both are worth at least 80 minutes each weekend. Fervently, I also cling to the belief that union is still the game played in heaven, and will continue to draw by far the most appreciative celestial crowds.
Nick Bryant, a disappointed England supporter, is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.