Roger Alton

England’s rugby team are embarrassingly sore losers

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Sports events come and go, but good manners, as William of Wykeham might have put it, last for ever. Or the lack of them. Which is why the surly, petulant behaviour of most of England’s rugby players after losing the World Cup final was so disgraceful. Refusing to wear the medals presented to them (by Sir Bill Beaumont, for heaven’s sake, a man who knows a bit about losing as well as winning), or hastily discarding them, standing around scowling, and then failing to bow in unison to the Japanese people who had created such a marvellous tournament.

It was all pretty shameful. The rugby fraternity loftily dismisses this as being because the team care too much and felt they had let down the nation. And anyway, we’re not elite athletes so we, the public, don’t understand. Really? What tosh. South Africa’s inspirational captain Siya Kolisi grew up in a township, uncertain of where his next meal was coming from. That’s worth caring about too.

Never underestimate the capacity of sportspeople to shoot themselves in the foot just as they’re being lavished with praise. England’s performance after the match was unsporting and embarrassing, and, as a games master might have told a team of ill-tempered ten-year-olds, ‘Very disappointing, boys’. And don’t say it’s part of that ghastly sense that ‘We’re winners, we are: we don’t do losing’. Well, look at the score, guys.

Contrast it with the All Blacks’ graceful behaviour after losing that memorable semi-final to England. And New Zealand had actually lost the World Cup, not simply failed to win it. We have a lot to learn.

It was equally contemptuous when José Mourinho once took off his Premier League winner’s medal and threw it into the crowd at Stamford Bridge. It’s like saying: ‘I win a lot of these things, it will mean more to you people.’ Losing with grace is as important as winning with humility.

I am told that in the Springboks’ changing room just before the final, one of the last motivational messages to the players was that they should remember they were just playing Saracens: ‘You’re South Africa: these guys are a north London club side.’ And not a well-liked one at that, to put it mildly, despite being stuffed full of international stars. Anyway, it clearly did the trick, and Sarries’ England line-up barely got a look-in.

Now we have been able to see quite how Saracens have managed to collect all those internationals. There are lots of ways rugby has been able to sustain a perception of superiority over football: respect for referees, lack of play acting, financial transparency and good housekeeping.

But it seems Saracens have kicked that into touch with some very sharp practice over the salary cap. And anything which can reduce such honourable figures as Chris Robshaw and Danny Care to anger and despair is clearly going some. The small print of how Saracens got round the wage bill rules has yet to emerge, but it is difficult to see how the club can keep all their recent honours if the sport is to retain the moral high ground over football.

Football, meanwhile, is in a shocking state over the shambles that is VAR — using video to help the referee. At the moment it’s not the technology that is at fault; it has given us a secondary layer of officialdom that can take an age to mull over incidents before coming up with often bizarre rulings that are just as subjective and open to debate as they ever were — only they have taken ten times as long to get there.

It works well in tennis, cricket and indeed rugby. So football has to use it. But once 80-odd per cent of any football chat seems to be about technology, it’s clear we have a problem.

Written byRoger Alton

Roger Alton is a former editor of the Observer and the Independent. He writes the Spectator Sport column.

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