A vibrantly challenging final in Barbados today (Saturday) might at least — and at last — put a smile on the face of cricket’s dismally tedious World Cup. The England team will doubtless be watching at home, behind closed curtains. Let’s hope their new coach has more oomph and isn’t such a stubborn sourpuss as his predecessor who allowed the rot to set in on top of that Trafalgar Square bus 19 months ago. Enough said; except don’t say you hadn’t been warned in this corner even before the gruesome Ashes winter began. Meanwhile, hooray for a languidly normal olde-tyme summer, but don’t doze off at the back there because in early September begins another prolonged World Cup — rugby union’s in France could be just as fitfully a flickering 44-day endurance test as cricket’s was in the Caribbean.
British rugby is in manic rehearsal mode. Club rugby’s end-of-term prize-giving is interminably, dizzyingly daft. Still April, and they’ve already decided the EDF Energy cup final, the EDF Energy trophy, and the Anglo-Welsh cup — and over the next few weeks a blizzard of biggies submerges the domestic game: the Heineken cup final, play-off finals for the Guinness Premiership cup and the Magners league cup; the European challenge cup, the Bill Beaumont cup, the Barclays Churchill cup, the London 7s trophy, and as many as three finals to settle separate winners of the County Championship cup, trophy and plate. Money, money, money: geese and golden eggs, to be sure.
Rugby had been in beery good heart for a full century before, just 35 years ago, its feudal masters at Twickenham timorously sanctioned the English game’s very first knockout cup tournament. The implacably amateur Rugby Football Union thought competition for any trophy, other than folklore’s primeval Calcutta Cup, would drag the game into the hellfires of professionalism. (Right, too, as it turned out.) The inaugural knockout cup final, sponsored by John Player cigarettes, was staged at Twickenham in 1972. Moseley lost to the the Forest of Dean toughs who, with typically sly relish, goaded the Midlanders into retaliation and a joyously fraternal punch-up which had the horrified RFU threatening to cancel the ‘experiment’ forthwith.
There was no going back. How some — probably still — must wish they’d stuck to their guns. Two years before, in 1970, the RFU’s sticklers had sought to stiffen their resolve against any form of competition by inviting that grandest of Irish players and by now whizz-kid entrepreneur, Tony O’Reilly, to address their symposium on the evils of knockout cups and the purity of the amateur ethos: just the fellow, one of us, a Belvedere boy who’d played only for fun and laughter, and a wondrous, world famous orator, too. Tony turned up at Twick, full of beans and bonhomie as ever but, alas, the blazers hadn’t properly briefed him on which particular side to take.
‘Gentlemen, you’ve no problams at all,’ began the fabled redhead. ‘Fiercely competitive rugby for cups and trophies has forever been a joy to us all in Ireland — for a century now we’ve been playing annually for the Inter-Prov cup, the Metropolitan cup, the Leinster cup, the Munster cup, the Ulster cup, the Connacht cup, the O’Connell cup for second XVs, the Moran cup for third XVs, the Winter’s cup for B XVs, the O’Connor cup for C XVs, the Spencer cup …O’Reilly was still in full, glorious spate when those RFU committeemen who hadn’t fainted had, for sure, all wet their cavalry-twills.