I fancy that quite a few of the apparent zillions who turned up at, or tuned into, what someone on Radio 5 described as ‘Bob Gandalf’s pop festival’ spent much of their time asking above the din, ‘I wonder what the score is?’ Because sport also put on an extended whoopee of variety acts last weekend. You had rugby’s Lions for Saturday breakfast, Australia’s opening overs at Lord’s for elevenses, Wimbledon for lunch, Henley for tea and cucumber sandwiches, Le Tour in France for an early evening pastis snifter — and much more of the same next day.
Some regard the rugby as a calamity, the combined British and Irish side being ignominiously sandbagged by New Zealand, and in two successive Tests shipping a record total of 71 points — a particularly rude drubbing, seeing that coach Sir Clive Woodward had swaggered into town claiming his fellows were ‘the freshest, fittest, best prepared’ Lions team in history. Genuine lovers of the cauliflower-eared old game, however, should look upon it as a necessary, even joyful beating because the All Blacks were simply so bonnily good — rapturously imaginative and athletic, an irresistible force of 15. Rugby as it should be played. Today’s final Test of the now dead rubber must feature all those passengers Woodward should have picked in the first place, although I doubt he knows even now who they are. A decade ago I wrote a book on rugby’s immortal fly-halves. It needs an update, to acclaim the glistening young Kiwi Daniel Carter. What a peerless match he played. The only time New Zealand have been beaten by the Lions was in 1971 when the insouciant fly-half exploits of heaven-sent, almost mystically untouchable Welsh boy Barry John forced southern hemisphere rugby to change from its ingrained grim attitudes of grunt and grind. This time, boot on the other foot, Carter’s inspiration could do the same for us in the north where (except for a few Welshmen) the game has become tramlined into the bump and bore, heave and hump, of robotic, overcoached, over-gymned musclebound zombies.
Wimbledon champion Roger Federer was as awesome as Daniel Carter. Both are in their early 20s, clean-shaven, upstanding soft charmers. Wimbledon’s second week was uplifting, with a handful of marvellous matches, men’s and women’s (with Venus voluptuous) to relish and savour without the raucous all-enveloping smokescreen of the BBC-provoked Hen’an’Murraymania. I fancy only a classic old-time serve-and-volley gunslinger will ever discomfort Federer. In his unmissable column in the Sunday Telegraph on-the-ball former champion John McEnroe reckoned it far too early to call Federer the best ever: ‘Sampras had a better serve — second serve particularly — and Boris [Becker] shares my view that Sampras would still have the edge over Federer on grass.’ It was 70 summers ago that Fred Perry won the second of his three successive SW19 singles titles (Sampras, Borg and now Federer are the only other modern hat-trick champs) and I looked up the Daily Express of 6 July 1935. It was reasonably excited; it quoted Fred — ‘I’ve never played better and think I never will’ — but far more space on the page was taken up with an ad featuring a handsome anon mixed-doubles couple: ‘My wife and I smoke roughly 450 between us weekly. They do not affect our breathing and we come off the courts fresh. Athletes prefer Craven A because Craven A do not “cut the wind”.’ Those were the days, my friend, they thought they’d never end.