| The England rugby team after winning the Grand Slam
By car it might take him an hour, but Sven-Goran Eriksson could always ride the train through Barnes and Richmond to see a version of English life that excludes chairs being thrown through cafe windows and celebrities under-performing. The England coach could leave the Football Association’s headquarters in Soho and head south-west to Twickenham, to ask Clive Woodward and his Grand Slam champions how it’s done.
Eriksson has been to plenty of Premiership football grounds but never to the home of the favourites for this autumn’s rugby World Cup. A pity this, because England rugby is a model for England football. Rugby has Twickenham. Football is carrying the rotten cross of Wembley — a good-money-after-bad absurdity. Through clever planning, investment and hard graft on the part of the coaches and players, England’s rugby XV are a beaming advertisement not just for themselves but the game they play so well.
Eriksson’s men are lost in a thicket of mediocrity, hooliganism and debilitating club against country rucks.
Woodward’s conquerors behave as if wearing the red rose of England is a religious calling. The Three Lions of football doze in the sun. It helps, of course, that the England rugby lot are universally acknowledged to be the epicentre of the 15-man game: the money-generator and spiritual core. Across town, the FA is trapped in an increasingly vicious struggle to secure the services of the country’s best players from their clubs.
Woodward gets 20 special squad days a season for training and preparation alone. Eriksson and the FA have cancelled friendly fixtures to appease the big clubs. But still: the FA should swallow its pride and set out in convoy to Twickenham to study the Woodward way.
England rugby is a meritocracy with no egos, a strong development structure and lots of specialist coaching. Playing football for England looks, too often, like an after-thought, one obligation too many on top of the Premiership and Champions League. But if Irish rugby can raid Woodward’s inspiration bank, then so can Eriksson and his legion of millionaires.
As England toiled against Slovakia, Macedonia, Australia and Liechtenstein, some fell into the trap of doubting the talent of the leading players.
This is a mistake, surely. From Michael Owen, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville (a proper rock) and eventually, maybe, Wayne Rooney, Wes Brown, John Terry and Jermain Defoe, it ought to be within Eriksson’s power to close the old void between expectation and achievement.
As someone who managed to attend both England games at the weekend, I had the overwhelming sensation that England football isn’t within phoning distance of England rugby. The four categories are: players, supporters, stadium and results (31 wins in 35 outings for Woodward’s gladiators).
Most of all, it was jarring to pass from a country where England fans defiled yet another foreign city (this time Zurich) to a town where Irish spectators ambled away from the auditorium calling “well done” to their guests. The home crowd had stayed behind at Lansdowne Road to acclaim the new Grand Slam nonpareils and to give Jonny Wilkinson an especially lusty cheer.
There are lingering proponents of Class War who think society would be improved by the demolition of Twickenham and the construction of social housing on the site of the west car park, where Surrey consumes sauvignon and salmon from the back of its Audi estate.
Sure, not everyone sees the world through the windscreen of a Jaguar that spends its nights on a gravel drive in Godalming, but I have to challenge the old prejudice about Twickenham Man being an insufferable bore: Tim Nice But Dim. For some — especially faux proletarians who lie about their dad having worked down the mines — it’s still oddly fashionable to loathe the middle-class.
No-one at Twickenham (nor indeed any rugby match) has ever called me “scum” for being a journalist, or assaulted my ear-drums with “no surrender to the IRA” (you need to hear all the words to take real offence). Nor have they sung “f***-the-Pope”, or “stand up if you hate the Scots/French /Iraqis/ everybody-other-than-the-English.”
You see the odd legless rugby punter puke outside a pub, or wander off with a traffic cone on his head, but I’ve yet to see one throw a chair through a kebab shop window, greet the team with Nazi salutes, or sway down the carriage in a Paris Metro train singing “if it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts”.
In Liechtenstein, it was a pleasure to talk to some of the many England fans who had travelled to this Alpine film set only to add to their stock of experiences and to cheer the team on. The Faustian pact they sign is to share that journey with a hard core of sociopaths.
For them, it’s not enough to love your own team. To be really functioning as a human being you have to hate everyone else’s. Ironically, the thug’s uniform is one that would not look out of place at Twickers: Burberry jacket and Hackett shirt.
The bravery of the travelling street brawler, of course, extends only as far as kicking a Swiss student through the Zurich streets. It doesn't quite stretch to joining the army and fighting in Iraq.
Despite the stereotype, this England rugby team are the least egocentric gang of macho-men I’ve come across. For months, now — years even — rugby writers have kept a look out for the swaggering Nigel of Celtic myth. If anything, Woodward’s men have been too self-effacing, too eager not to offend. The minor diplomatic contretemps over Martin Johnson’s refusal to move his players to the correct section of red carpet for the national anthems in Dublin is too silly to contemplate.
“They do make it easy for people not to like them,” reckons Donal Lenihan, the former Lions manager. This is beneath contempt. Lenihan was once a lock forward, but it takes a pygmy to withhold credit from a team who, in less than five months, have beaten Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and France and rounded it all off with a Grand Slam.