This Saturday, 20 November, and next, Twickenham’s presumptuous clan gathers its travel-rugs round its knees and bays for colonials’ blood. Likewise, the hipflasks will warm cockles and loosen throats to raise the rafters for the boys in green, blue and red to strut the hard yards in Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff. While rugby’s autumn internationals will provide fun and a few telling pointers, the results, broadly, do not matter. With no World Cup to bother about till 2007, the domestic rugby season is focused on the ravishingly competitive Heineken Cup and, in the New Year, the age-old weekend-break traditions of the Six Nations tournament. Both these European fiestas, for the British Isles anyway, are geared to the promise of a tumultuous Lions’ tour to New Zealand in the summer.
A pity that this batch — bash! — of rugby union autumn Tests have, in Fleet Street headline terms, rottenly upstaged rugby league’s Tri-Nations’ competition. Could it be planned spoiling by the overbearing union? It wouldn’t be the first. Rugby league’s friends in the north must fume. As ever, they publicly grin and bear it, confident that their 13-man product is far the fitter, faster, fairer and — wham-bam! — tougher. Nevertheless, rugby league’s snag is its static first-class base. Try as it has for a century, it never expands. Sure, it is hale and cherished in its heartland — but its heartland remains Yorks, Lancs, New South Wales and, er, that’s it. This month’s Tri-Nations tournament (i.e., GB, Oz and NZ) has the identically unchallenging needle as its World Cup. Only three can possibly win. At the RL World Cup in 2000 I was sent to Cardiff for Lebanon v the Cook Islands. The former were all Oz-twanging ex-Sydney waiters and the latter, to a man, were born New Zealanders.
For all that, at Twickenham last Saturday, 13 November, when England warmed up against Canada, all rugby leaguers should have been preening. England had a new captain, Jason Robinson, twinkle-toed little star émigré from rugby league. In midfield, erstwhile Twickenham favourite and upright public school Harlequin Will Greenwood had been unceremoniously dropped for another who learnt his stuff at league, Henry Paul. As well, two of England’s three senior coaches who prepared the team’s crucial primary tactics — Joe Lydon (attack) and Phil Larder (defence) — were not so long ago genuine legends of rugby league. If that’s not a pretty comprehensive takeover by stealth, what is? How those old buffers who so recently and strictly farmed the feudal fields of Twick must have been turning cartwheels in their celestial scrum!
Meanwhile, the England team which so headily won the World Cup one November ago has, for a variety of reasons, been almost completely dismantled. It has to be said that they won that unforgettably famous final in Sydney last year by the twitch of a whisker, being nothing like the resplendently well-oiled attacking team they had been six months before. In the end — as they will each privately admit to you at dead of night — they won the Cup solely through the olde Englishe strategy of muddling-through, as if to prove to the world and themselves that, as Emerson put it, ‘when up against it, I find the Englishman to be him of all men who stands firmest in his shoes’. On second thoughts, these not-so-friendly friendlies against South Africa and Australia this weekend and next means that England’s defence of the World Cup starts right here and now.