Rugby World Cup: Why I’ll be cheering on England – John McLellan

I feel as much a part of the English rugby scene as I do of Scotland’s, writes ex-Preston Grasshopper John McLellan.

England captain Owen Farrell talks to head coach Eddie Jones (Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images)
England captain Owen Farrell talks to head coach Eddie Jones (Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Down at Twickenham earlier this year, I swear there were tears in my eyes as what had seemed just before half time to be turning into a sickening humiliation was instead becoming one of the most staggering recoveries in sport.

For Scottish rugby fans, Liverpool coming back from 3-0 down to beat AC Milan on penalties in the 2005 Champions’ League final would have nothing on this game if Scotland could win from 31-0 behind. They weren’t just losing but being ground into the south-west London soil.

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We know now the miracle very nearly came off, with Scotland leading 31-38 on the last play of the game, only to let in England once again to close out a 38-38 draw. I doubt I will ever experience such eye-popping, man-hugging drama at a rugby match again. It was my team, my country, and I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

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South Africa captain Siya Kolisi ready for shot at history

But whisper it up here, Scotland’s shock treatment might just have sparked England’s progress to the Rugby World Cup final in Tokyo, because since that March day they have only lost once, in August when a second string side including only six of today’s starters lost a World Cup warm-up 13-6 to Wales in Cardiff. A week later, a team featuring 12 of today’s opening line-up thrashed Ireland 57-15.

The chances are anyone reading this column will already know whether Owen Farrell has held the Webb Ellis Trophy aloft or if he was down on his hunkers in despair as the honour fell to a victorious South African captain Siya Kolisi. And I should want the Cup to be raised for the first time by a black Springbok skipper.

Pipe band member in 76

But I don’t. I want to see the Veldt Leviathans cut open by the skills of Farrell and George Ford, honed on dimly lit rugby league grounds at Wigan St Pats and Bradford, because I’m supporting England. Always have. Ever since that collection of Esso 1970 Mexico World Cup football coins was completed, I’ve backed England when they aren’t playing us.

I was in the pipe band in 1976 when Kenny Dalglish stuck the ball through Ray Clemence’s legs, my mates came back from Wembley the following year with tufts of grass and bits of wood they said were from the obviously tubular goal posts, and in 1978 alongside everyone else I laughed along with Andy Cameron and ‘We’re on the March with Ally’s Army’ and sat stunned as we were undone by Cubillas and Peru. But it was striking how the rest of the country seemed to want Scotland to do well in Argentina, in contrast to those blokes who head to the pub wearing the football shirts of countries they can’t locate on a map when England play.

In 1984 I was playing for Preston Grasshoppers when the Grand Slam was won, where Wade Dooley was still learning his trade and couldn’t know he’d experience what it was like to lose to Scotland in a title decider six years later. That day I turned out for Furness RUFC from Barrow, the only Scot in a packed clubhouse where afterwards everyone patted my back and shook my hand as if I’d actually been playing at Murrayfield. This morning I’ll be texting a couple of my team-mates from that day.

A gun to Zeffirelli’s head

Years living in England, playing rugby union and covering professional rugby league has made me feel as much part of their game as ours. The rest of the house is solidly behind England too, but at least my wife can justify her support on account of actually being English. So the rest of the gang can claim red and white blood, but even so my hockey-playing daughter (who has actually beaten an England team) still gets asked by some team-mates how she can support “them” when “we’ll never hear the end of it”. Well we never tire of Archie Gemmill’s goal or 1990 and I’ll never forget Twickenham 2019.

There will of course be those who will say that it’s only to be expected from a Conservative, and a lot worse, although there are plenty of our persuasion who are in the Anyone-but-England camp. But I’ve never seen the need to wallow in every set-back suffered by English teams to demonstrate pride in my heritage and culture or the differences between us, and I’m as quick as the next Scot when abroad to correct anyone who thinks I’m from elsewhere. Like the woman in Arizona who saw me in a kilt and asked if I was Irish.

I am reminded of the story told by Italian film director Franco Zeffirelli when he was a partisan fighter during the War. Trapped between Allied and German forces he gave himself up to what he hoped were friendly troops. “English?” he called, and thought his life was over when a soldier shouted back “No” in a guttural tone he didn’t recognise and put a gun near his head. The soldier hissed, “We’re f***ing Scottish.”

Seven ministers in seven years

Talking of culture, seven ministers in seven years is not a musical based on government departments, but it should be at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, where this week Nicky Morgan announced she will be the latest Secretary of State to depart since Jeremy Hunt’s elevation to health in 2012.

For us in the news business, it’s a key appointment, but no sooner had the industry got to know what Maria Miller, Sajid Javid, John Whittingdale, Karen Bradley, Matt Hancock and Jeremy Wright were all about, than it was usually time to move on.

Ms Morgan has only been in the job three months, not even enough time to pop into the News Media Association offices for a spot of lunch. Nowhere will her departure be more keenly felt than amongst the senior civil servants she leaves behind who have seen them all come and go but in such a short space of time were thoroughly impressed by the speed with which she mastered complex issues and her ability to absorb a brief instantly.

If Ruth Davidson can be offered £50k for two days work a month, the ex-education secretary and treasury select committee chair won’t be short of offers.

Edinburgh Christmas market: Treatment of memorial benches a disgrace

As if the mesh of steel currently spreading across Princes Street Gardens wasn’t shocking enough, the pictures circulated on social media of memorial benches carelessly heaped up in a corner by construction workers like an abandoned game of Jenga symbolised an equal lack of concern behind Edinburgh council’s decision to let it happen.

It would be going too far to say the council officers who allowed the Christmas Market operator Underbelly to proceed with their scheme without submitting a planning application couldn’t care less about the benches, but the evidence strongly suggests they didn’t care enough to make sure it didn’t happen.

Administration councillors were quick to respond on Twitter to tell the public how terrible it was, that immediate action would be taken, that it shouldn’t have happened, but the fact is it did.

At every meeting of Edinburgh council, we on the Conservative seats listen to one SNP councillor after another boasting about the fantastic job they are doing to protect the city centre, but on this occasion they are responsible for the despoliation one of Edinburgh’s most treasured places.