Football is great and there can be a beautiful flow to it. An argument often advanced in support of its superiority (and I’ve done this myself) is that there are too many stoppages in rugby. Well, thinking back to the closing 15 minutes of England vs Wales at the last World Cup, I was grateful for the pauses otherwise I was sure I was going to explode with all the tension.
Football can be engrossing but rugby wins on churning, chest-tightening intensity. A football match, in the era of two banks of four, can be “killed” more efficiently, more dully, than a rugby match by restricting the other team to shots from distance. In rugby you can have 15 stout English yeomen, steam rising from worn-out haunches, absolutely petrified of putting a boot or hand in the wrong place, even around the halfway line, because Dan Biggar is kicking sensationally which, of course, was what happened right at the death last autumn.
Penalty! But Biggar, second-choice for the match, the Welsh blootered by injuries, still had to conquer Twickenham expectancy, if not entitlement, before he could defeat the yardage. I know you can’t really compare such moments with penalties in football but the latter have lost much of their drama. Some footballers seem bored with them; how else to explain so many slovenly efforts? Others pounce on spot-kicks too eagerly in pursuit of a scoring record and a questionable claim to immortality. And when their efforts scream over the bar they’ll all dagger-stare the ground as if it’s the turf’s fault.
I haven’t even talked about the 18th of October and Scotland vs Australia yet – our greatest near-miss and biggest hard-luck story in any sport, ever. This was a game to make you love rugby, then hate rugby, then curse there being no opportunity to see your country play again, get the chance to obliterate the disappointment, until this Saturday. And here we are, about to joust with an England team with so much to prove and put right, a side with a new captain very definitely not from the Twickers’ finishing-school who’s spent more than a year of his career serving bans – and a new coach cracking more jokes than all his predecessors put together and who masterminded Japan’s World Cup defeat of South Africa, giving lie to the theory that rugby is too predictable, producing hardly any shocks, with the biggest teams always winning. Could I be looking forward to this match any more than I am? Honestly, I can’t type these words for wanting to run to the loo as speedily as Craig Joubert.
Remember in the not too distant past when Scotland couldn’t pass the ball all the way along the line without dropping it? When if somehow it did travel that far, the final delivery would have to come from a standing position owing to a general lack of dash and wit, leaving its recipient to get absolutely smashed? Well, that doesn’t really happen now. Scotland can compete. They’ve got dynamic, exciting players. They’ve won themselves a reputation and no one from England is saying they should be demoted from the Six Nations anymore.
By rights, I should be bored with the Six Nations. It’s the same tight bunch of teams playing each other, year after year. Isn’t that why I’m bored with football’s Champions League, which invariably turns into a private party for the elite quartet after all that tedium of the groups? Yes, but the Six Nations – built on reciprocal arrangements like the one where Scotland visit Cardiff one year and the Welsh 12 months later point their giant inflatable leeks along Rose Street hoping it’s been transformed back into the greatest pub thoroughfare of them all and everyone but everyone claims to have been among 1975’s one-hundred-and-amazing thousand at Murrayfield – is something sacred.
This is a big year for the Six Nations. If you’re not at the games you’ll be relying on TV, only two stations this time. Just at the moment when the BBC started showing off the archive – from Richard Sharp through Gareth Edwards, Mike Gibson, Andy Irvine and onwards to some more recent chaps who weren’t bad either – it had to give up the exclusive rights. That was either a fumble to rival some of Scotland’s or a plaintive cry from a broadcaster with funding issues but which had spent too much on food programmes and cold-case dramas in any case. Now the Beeb must share with ITV which has always covered the World Cup but we’ll be watching closely for any traditional third-channel naffness. Doubtless ITV is feeling pretty confident after the success of RWC 2015 but not even trashy Channel 5 could have cocked that up.
Of course, nostalgia colours my view on rugby vs football – it does most things. I think often of the loon-panted student longhairs who so intrigued me at my very first Murrayfield internationals, not least in their anti-apartheid scraps with the police, but have started to paint in extra detail. Now in the memory they’re carrying dramatic-looking LPs (Atomic Rooster, Blodwyn Pig), making the scene even more evocative. But I’ve not imagined that, with his Ireland team losing one winter’s afternoon, Tom Kiernan running back to his posts raised an arm to indicate a Scotland drop-goal attempt had successfully bisected them. Such sportsmanship was commonplace. Rugby was more valorous than football but football – dirty and sexy – didn’t care about that.
Now football is over-exposed, its excesses huge. Rugby in the pro age is less valorous and I get just as infuriated with the anodyne, media-trained, post-match waffle of a practitioner of the oval ball game as I do that of a footballer. But football is still the arena for the greatest disappointments, such as discovering that Lionel Messi has just had a whole arm tattooed.
Rugby may yet catch up and there’s a very good chance that when a garryowen is hoisted on Saturday, Owen Farrell will ever so professionally knock the Scottish runner off his stride. I will be outraged by this, but at the same time thrilled to have rugby back.