Some events are supposed to resonate so deeply in a country’s collective psyche that we all remember exactly where we were when we received the news, and for a long time after.
For example, despite having recently returned from a two year recce of the Turkish emerging market mountains by pack horse that meant I completely missed 9/11, I was on Aug 31st 2004 I remember about to have breakfast on the porch of my Grandmother’s hillside cottage just outside Walkerburn in the Scottish Borders when she walked in with a strange, indefinable mood that announced the death of Lady Di.
As you’d expect, my Grandmother, now over 100 and still going on, is an old school Royalist who treasures her personal 100 birthday card from the Queen, so her support for the monarchy was and always will be 100% selective and unconditional, and none of Lady Di’s tasty adventures ever got traction with her, even if she did cop an occasional glance at the Scottish tabloids in the local newsagent on bread runs.
It’s Oct 3rd 2015 now and I’m in Uskudar Istanbul, about to jump on a ferry across the Bosporus to watch the England versus Australia game in the James Joyce Irish pub just off the Istiklal that shows all the Rugby World Cup games.
Earlier in the week my Turkish wife announced she was taking our 16 month old Son off to a childrens’ birthday party at the home of her birthing coach that coming Saturday afternoon, so I was able to counter punch with the need to lend support to our current English Rugby coach, whose long and painful four year Rugby World Cup pregnancy would end in laughter or tears the same evening. She could send my mobile live Turkish birthday party feeds to cheer me up if the expected unfolded, and the classy Aussie team taught us English a lesson we’d never forget.
So come that fateful Saturday early afternoon, I dutifully sat with the baby while she got spruced up at Bruno’s Kuafor, saw her and the stroller safely onto the dolmus, the local minibus service that only leaves when full, and made my way down to Uskudar ferry terminal. There was time to jump on the Golden Horn ferry to Kasimpasa and put in an hour’s lengths at Bilgi University’s half Olympic pool, and still arrive at the Joyce early enough to catch the second half of the Japan Scotland game, and run an eye over the Eddie Jones revelation that beat the Boks.
I parked myself in prime position, on a table for four which had a clear unimpeded view of the big screen that would usually provide backdrop to a live band on a Saturday night at the Joyce, and got the first local Efes lager in. Japan did for the much bigger Samoans in some comfort, and it became even harder not to dwell on the memory of the canny and experienced Jones being turned down by the RFU for the less experienced Lancaster to replace the totally inexperienced Johnson, after his somewhat chaotic 2011 RWC campaign down under.
On to Scotland and South Africa, with hardly enough time to get my second Efes in, and the bar began to fill up. I recognized a Scotsman who stood next to me all those years ago, it must have been 2007, when Ashton’s England got one over Australia en route to the final. He cheered every Aussie score, and jeered every English, so when I clocked his accent through the din, I slapped him on the back after one Aussie three pointer with ‘You must be Scottish’, which was me motoring in under the Independence posts for a Union seven pointer.
I knew it was unlikely I’d be joined at my table with a view by Kate Moss with a few hours to kill in transit to Bodrum, so I wasn’t too disappointed when a middle aged couple from New Zealand took two of the seats, and told me they were on a World Cup Tour via Istanbul and Eastern Europe to England and a quarter final at least that would likely feature their team. Well, I told them that’s not the kind of tour that any English Rugby fan would risk, and quickly took out insurance for both my Scottish and English halves by confessing I wasn’t expecting a day of Northern Hemisphere celebration.
I praised the ever awesome All Blacks, then doubled down on my loss insurance with an excuse for the England game, commenting that they never picked their best players like Cipriani, who I suggested would be playing for any other country in the world, and might even get into the NZ outfit, now that Carter was ageing and injury prone. It’s easy to forget that New Zealanders tend to be a clean living lot with a strict moral code and a team with an ethos that effortlessly synthesizes the less stable byproducts of supreme talent if they appear. That might be because their talent enjoys a numerical ascendancy that has zero tolerance for car pods, cliques, and other groups of journeyman pros who could threaten their culture. ‘Isn’t Cipriani that wild one who always gets into trouble?’ asked the Kiwi, to which I replied appealingly to his more malleable feminine side, mindful of other infamous English bad boys like Hartley, Tuilagi, Care and even Armitage, ‘don’t you have any unpredictable talents who go off the rails occasionally?’, a question that met with a lengthy pause and search of her rugby hard drive, before the answer – ‘there was one, but I can’t remember his name’! To be fair to Cipriani, he had ample reason to divide his attentions.
As the Boks began to weigh heavily on the Scottish, who sensibly kept some of their best players back for the Samoa game that would get them into the quarters if they won, I suddenly saw the folly of Lancaster trying to ape the All Black set up. They had a car park full of high performance custom made sports cars, each one individually designed, built and painstakingly maintained. Any production line Skoda that slipped through security would get quickly exposed in training tests and sent packing. For Lancaster, it’s the other way round, an RFU branded fleet of souped up Skodas with a nippy little Ford Classic from a bygone era. If a custom made sports convertible with leather driving gloves, speed stripes, tall poppy logo and a hot babe in the passenger seat got pulled over by the talent scouts and brought in, it would enjoy greater danger and a shorter life expectancy than a London dispatch rider.
The Saffers duly finished off the gallant but underpowered Scots, and my table mates asked for an eating recommendation, which is never easy in Beyoglu, a maize of busy side streets and passages, so I suggested the 360, mainly for its proximity, view and app listing, even if it was a touch on the flash side for a couple of strait-laced Kiwis. I resolved to hold onto my box seat and order what the Joyce waiter recommended, which turned out to be a pretty decent home made chicken fricassee and chips that the Kiwis would have enjoyed.
The bar filled further as the big game approached, a couple of dangerous looking ladies cast half an eye at my table, but before they could complete their recce, the waiter had presented a Frenchman with perfect English who knew his Rugby, on his way back to France from a business trip in the Middle East. The latter pressed the ‘you must be an arms dealer’ reply button, so it was a little embarrassing when he replied ‘not entirely, that’s just one part of our business’. He took my faux quip in his stride, and got stuck straight into a sizzling fajita, swilled down with lager and his hopes for a fast, fluid, free flowing game, for which I suggested he’d probably have to rely on Aussie dominance, with Farrell at fly half and Burgess inside center. But we both agreed there’d be no shortage of excitement.
I don’t bother much with the mainstream media sports writers, unless there’s a personal axe to grind it’s one order of the brown nose competition of inoffensive editorial and establishment approved rubbish after another, presumably to appease sponsors or win access to leaks, titbits, tickets and front row seats at the equally uninspiring and scripted media functions. Far more fun and insightful are the comments posted below their articles, which show the mostly unequal battle between those who value talent and humour, and those who don’t. As the match unfolded, and the Aussies scored sublime tries that had the Frenchman purring with an admiration I wholeheartedly shared, there was time to reflect on how it had come to this, with the honest hope and endeavor of the host nation being horribly ambushed by visitors showcasing superior talent and skills, in a manner that many posters and grounded supporters had predicted some time ago.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, the Kiwis returned from the 360 and took up the two remaining seats. All I caught in the midst of pub noise and my ruminations was something about girls all dressed in black and an ambience that didn’t entirely meet with their approval. That could have been ghosting belly dancers in a costume they’d teasingly remove or Arab ladies dining in full burkha, Istanbul being a confusing place where both can be found letting their hair down at the same restaurant. And I’d forgotten that Saturday night at the 360 is show night, all cash and razzle dazzle with a saucy live act or two often thrown in. There goes my career opening as the RFU’s Istanbul horses for courses RWC tour guide!
As England tried with some success to get back into the game with a great try by Watson, I considered the flawed logic that hadn’t received wider discussion that drove final squad and early team selection. This concluded that since England in recent times hadn’t been beaten by more than eight points at home, the big games would be close, with never more than a couple or three penalties dividing the teams, so dump Ford and the expansive rugby that had offered a glimpse of better times in the Six Nations and put your house on Farrell to kick the points that would win the close games and secure a place in the World Cup quarter finals. And that was where the negative strategy that clipped the Welsh rocks one week and smashed into the Aussie Great Barrier Reef the next came from.
The Kiwis left before the final whistle, which came after a superlative try by Giteau, who, as my French friend reminded me, plays in France for Toulon, the same club as Armitage, who the humble Lancaster had refused to pick. As a poker faced Lancaster walked down the steps through the crowd from the coaches box with three tries to one and 33-13 on the scoreboard, my Scots friend and a few others at a nearby table cried out a mocking ‘Bye, Bye’, to which I contributed with feeling and maybe a swear word somewhere ‘Get back to Cumbria’! And I always thought shouting at a screen was the next closest thing, after repeating the same mistakes again and again and expecting different outcomes, to insanity. At least he’s added two or three tries to the two or three penalties that the next coach must consider when making negative data based calculations that affect selection based on the past. That’s a legacy that might yield positive results.
I bid farewell to my French acquaintance, and as luck would have it happened straight onto my old Scots mate catching a victorious ciggy outside, revelling I guess in the next best thing to a Scottish win, so I clapped him on the back again with ‘I enjoyed that more than a Scotsman’, which startled him somewhat, since I don’t think he remembered 2007, and could have no idea that this was a unique England Australia fixture for some where the wrong end of an Aussie thrashing in the right manner offered the prospect of some serious soul searching and sacking.
After all that, there was just time to sidestep like Joseph along the packed Istiklal and race like May down Gumussuyu to catch the last 12.20 ferry from back to Asia from Eurpoe, up the steps next to the old Mosque silhouetted against the Bosporus, and back safe and sound and cuddling up to my wife’s warm, sleepy body in bed, which is where I’ll be for the Uruguay game.
Who to blame, in the cold light of the next day? That’s a long inquisition, so I’m going to keep it short with who to pardon? Apart from Burgess, who didn’t select himself, one ex player and commentator with a twinkle in his eye stood out from the madding crowd in my mind. And not just because I remember marking him at fly half in a house mismatch that had to be stopped at half-time with the score 33 – 0 with him scoring and assisting tries at will, but more to do with convergence, or the six degrees of separation, and shared views that sometimes signify shared values, even if not figures and bottom lines.
I set camp along pro Cipriani grounds some time ago, and was delighted when Will Carling joined our Spartan forces recently, first with some support for a much maligned Cipriani, then a warning about the perils of choosing Burgess with Burgess’ best interests at heart, and finally an appeal to the whole English team and the coaches to learn the lessons after the Wales defeat, along with a more contentious assessment that the players were so molly coddled they appeared to have lost the ability to think for themselves under pressure.
Well meaning and under the circumstances courageous words that ran into the normal wall of defensiveness and denial, and an attitude that preferred at that point to double down on bad choices made. The squad selected and the motives behind those selections were right, and would hold, with or without the current coaching and management structure, for the Six Nations and beyond. They stand at the gates of Fortress Twickenham like Chemical Ali at the fall of Baghdad, unable apparently to see that they have been routed by a far superior force, with Ford at fly half and Farrell now at inside center for the Uruguay walkover. But we the loyal supporters must get behind the team against Uruguay in Manchester for the sake of Rugby in the North, and then we must remember the Uruguay match not what went before, which you’d have thought even the Alex Goode Benefit XV starring 37 year old Nick Easter might win at a canter.
The irony is that the only strong Rugby Club in the North these days is Steve Diamond’s Sale, whose fly half is the mercurial Cipriani, who any impartial observer would say has been gamed by the current RFU backed England coaches, set up to fail, and then cast aside for favourites when he didn’t. All Cipriani had to do to turn himself into a scapegoat was wake up and air his justifiable grievances, and then go out with a book and a bang a la KP. Problem is he’s only 27, and at the peak of his powers. Why should he sacrifice his career by taking out a rotten establishment? And what can be more rotten than a coach who threatens to end the career of a prodigal son in a training ground spat just after he’s left him out the World Cup squad? Like Stuart Lancaster sought justification for his schoolmasterly prejudice in Peter Moores, so Jonah Lomu’s World Cup try scoring doormat Catt should go and cosy up with the joyless Gooch.
For me, like anyone a conditional subjective supporter of a team or an individual with moments of objective clarity thrown in, Saturday 3rd October and all that went with it as the English got unceremoniously dumped out of their own World Cup gets memory archived in the national collective disaster cabinet, close to where I file away my personal disaster dossiers. In a way, it’s not the actual day of these stellar events that sear themselves into the national psyche but what leads up to them that is enthralling. Social media is relentless in its scrutiny of actors caught up in big events and the public eye as the magnetic pull of destiny draws them in. Some end up heroes, others villains, and many get destroyed, like in a Greek tragedy.
And what about Cipriani, now the deed has been done, the latest battle lost, the World Cup campaign a dismal failure for the host nation? He looked good on the touchline mic in hand with nice words for his team mates and even coaches as the ship went down. But who could blame him if deeper down he felt vindicated at the outcome of events now? What next? In his case, after the Uruguay game I’m not sure that discretion will be the better part of valour. He has been deceived, his desire for atonement taken advantage of. Between him and the try line that represents his chances of starting the Six Nations as first choice fly half stand the personal agendas of Catt, Farrell, Rowntree and Lancaster, and behaviour that suggests they are trying to mark him out of their team for good. He should continue to do what he does best, on and off the field. Attack.
For the rest of us Rugby supporters, players, coaches, administrators and bankrupt flat-footed fly half has beens, mainly I imagine saddened but hardly surprised by the turn of events, this is a rare chance to go in for the kill. If all that energy wasted on hidden agendas and manipulation and coverups had been spent on developing a strategy and tactics that undermined the opposition, the results might have been different.
England aren’t playing for pride or their skins against Uruguay, they are paying for their sins, and embarrassingly for leadership that claims to have introduced some new code of moral rectitude, the sins are pride, envy and latterly as the wheels came off the costly chariot, wrath, which is at least three of the seven deadlies. Good going!
JWD Roberts Undercurrent Affairs stand in Rugby correspondent 10.10.2015