Tour Tales: England (Week 1)

JON CARDINELLI reflects on a week of rugby rebels, English patriotism and Japanese revelry.

It was all worth it. The excruciating buildup – the barrage of rugby TV shows, radio call-ins and pre-tournament write-ups that have ranged from things England need to do to win the World Cup to things Chris Robshaw’s cat ate for breakfast – is over.  We’re now three days into the 2015 World Cup, and boy, have we been rewarded for our persistence.

I was at Twickenham on Friday night for the opening ceremony and the first game of the tournament between England and Fiji. The spirit of the occasion was a welcomed surprise. Earlier in the week, I had struggled to identify a World Cup presence in central London. But on Friday, in the hours before kickoff and over the course of the game itself, the English fans ensured that the tournament began with a bang.

The opening ceremony was an opening ceremony, that is largely forgettable. What I did find entertaining, perhaps because I had visited the town of Rugby as well as the school a couple of days before, was the depiction of William Webb Ellis, rugby’s first rebel who ran with the ball in both hands.

I’m glad that the film-makers took a light-hearted approach to what many consider to be a myth. Indeed, the idea to use British rugby legends Ian McGeechan and Clive Woodward as dissenting characters in the story was inspired. Cameos by ‘groundsmen’ Prince Harry and Jonny Wilkinson were just as clever.

The trip to Rugby school is a must for any serious fan of the sport. My one regret is that the tour was rushed. We had just enough time for the school historian to regale us with a tale about the old days. The headmaster then relayed one anecdote about the boys risking a mass caning to play a match involving hundreds of students on the famous Close.

Then it was off in to town, to see the statue of Webb Ellis and the Gilbert Rugby Museum. By lunchtime, a trip to the local micro-brewery, The Rugby Tap, was welcomed. ‘How dooyah like Hogwarts then?’ the proprietor asked as he poured a pale ale. ‘Could have done with fewer lessons and more Quidditch,’ I responded.

The atmosphere at the England vs Fiji was carnival-like. At one stage, a group of Fijians behind me joined in as the English belted out ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. Everybody had come to Twickenham for a party. Nobody left disappointed.

But that party paled in comparison to the rock concert in Brighton less than 24 hours later. At half-time, one of my South African colleagues looked at a scoreboard that read South Africa 12, Japan 10. ‘Surely not,’ he said. I reminded him that that is what we all said at half-time when the Boks played Argentina in Durban a month ago. Of course, I never believed Japan would maintain their effort against South Africa in the latter stages.

The area surrounding the press box was packed with Japan supporters. They cheered and screamed for 78 minutes. Incredibly, those voices were even louder in the final two minutes when Japan found themselves camped on the Bok tryline and within sight of a truly unbelievable victory.

I turned around to assess the faces of the fans. The disbelief was plain. Their expressions had changed. It wasn’t just a party any more, it was a chance to make history. And the passionate fans understood the significance of the moment.

Members of the Japanese press celebrated at the final whistle. Coach Eddie Jones and captain Michael Leitch were greeted at the post-match press conference by thunderous applause.

Jones tried to remain humble for about two minutes, and then gave up. And really, when a team ranked No 13 in the world has just beaten No 3, and scored their second-ever win at the World Cup, why should the coach bother with false modesty?

Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Post by

Jon Cardinelli