| An Australian magpie gazes at rugby balls before the US rugby team’s training session in Brisbane on Monday. (AFP)
Bookmakers, rugby writers and the great Home Counties panel of pint-clutching blokes are unanimous: if form means anything, England really should win the World Cup, which opened in Sydney Saturday. For the country, that would mean looking up “victory” and “celebration” in a dictionary to work out what to do next. With a monstrous hangover, this brutal sport would wake the next day to find itself glamorous and maybe even hip.
With the mud washed off, these England players are a fine advertisement for the great physical democracy of front-row warthogs and touchline-scorching cheetahs.
It’s been said that Jonny Wilkinson, the world’s best rugby player, is every dad’s idea of a perfect date for his daughter. “Wilko” is modest, handsome and indomitable: a gentleman bruiser. Parents who would rather their children took up the cello or pottery could soon find themselves being badgered for jockstraps and gum shields.
Rugby’s beauty is that anyone with a pulse can play. It finds a jersey for the whole human spectrum of tall and short, fat and thin, fast and slow.
In rugby, there is no choice but to observe the needs of the team. Sure, there is individual genius, but above all there is mutual dependence.
The dumpy ones are inserted into the front row of the scrum and told to shove for their lives. The giants fill the line-outs and punch holes for the glory boys in the backs to gallop through. In rugby, there was always a job for everyone.
On a day trip to Marwell Zoo recently, Wilkinson and his England teammate Richard Hill began nominating animals for the 15 positions in a rugby team. They had a giraffe in the second row and a chimp at scrum-half. This tells you two things. One is that the England player no longer jumps into a vat of ale on his day off. The other is that even the elite recognise and cherish their physical dissimilarities.
In December of last year, the dangers of playing rugby were magnified when James Harding, 18, died after a clash of heads in a schoolboy match between Sherborne and Blundell’s. Fear of litigation is prompting many independent schools to turn to football instead.
There are other forces squeezing rugby’s popularity. One is our obsession with football, which has formed an alliance with pop culture. Wilkinson and David Beckham appear in an Adidas ad together. They both kick a ball beautifully.
There, the similarity ends.
The Rugby Football Union (RFU) recently made some shocking discoveries. In a survey, they found that less than one-fifth of the population is interested in rugby — down from one-quarter in 1996.
More than half of Britain’s independent schools now arrange football fixtures — a sure sign that schools rugby is in retreat. Rugby’s mind was forced open the day the sport turned professional and ushered in BSkyB, sponsors and agents.
There is still lingering nostalgia for the days when England players supposedly drank after-shave out of a trophy or kicked the precious Calcutta Cup through the streets of Edinburgh, but those memories are receding.
Rugby has made two fresh inroads.There are now 8,000 women players and 230 registered clubs. The RFU’s mini-rugby initiative is intended to reassure fretting parents. Gay rugby is taking off.
Above all, it’s possible to watch rugby without having one’s eardrums assaulted by obnoxious chanting, as they are in football. The national anthem is sung; the opposition’s tune invariably respected. The norm in rugby is to obey the man with the whistle. A darker reading of this fantastically complicated game is that it exists to facilitate violence.
Boxing is denounced for building into itself the intention to cause hurt. The guilty secret of many rugby-watching men is that they enjoy “clean” violence: face-to-face, hand-to-hand combat. A “proper” punch. Part of rugby’s fascination is that aggression has to be controlled.
Recently, an England physio compared the effect of modern international rugby on the body to a “controlled car crash”. Not once, but week after week. Only victory on November 22 will render the pain and the bruises bearable.