Saturday 19 November 2011
Lions Tigers And Other Wildlife
A couple of weeks or maybe more ago, tucked away in a late schedule was a programme from BBC Wales about the 1971 British and Irish Lions Tour of New Zealand introduced by Eddie Butler. Martin Johnson was still in his nappies and Rob Andrew an eight year old still wondering why a ball should be that shape.
It was from the 1971 Tour that the Lions returned having defeated New Zealand’s All Blacks twice and drawn once in a series of four games after playing some wonderful rugby. The archive film was glorious to watch, old rugby at its best and a game that differs greatly from that of the present. For one thing the players were all shapes and sizes and not identikit lumps turned out of gymnasia.
In this year’s World Cup the New Zealander’s were looking good, at home and up for it. It was always going to be difficult to stop them. France, unexpected finalists, made them work hard for the title but the All Blacks ground them down. Amongst the other teams in contention there were three or four who might or might not and did not. England was one of them.
To call this a “disaster” is really very stupid. Yes, they failed, but so did all the others except the All Blacks and it was in a game against France which was one of those where it did not work as it should have done. Been there, done that, games which might and should have been won but were not.
Unluckily, the defeat was compounded by players who were not alive to the nature and immediacy of modern communications and media coverage when they thought they were allowed to let their hair and other things down. But we have been here before.
In 1960, Peter Wilson of the Daily Mirror, their leading sports journalist and “The Man They Can’t Gag” made a rare excursion into Rugby Football to express his anger in an article entitled “This Hooliganism Must Stop”. It was to do with conduct by some players after the match that was rather livelier than the present England side in that just about all were former servicemen.
They made the error of assuming that there would be no press coverage to worry about. But that is another story. It might be simply coincidence but this bunch of daft blighters who were well past their teens were all from Johnson’s home patch in Leicester. Indeed he may have come across one or two in his early years.
However, the press conference given by Johnson and Andrew this week had its delights. The media did not much change from them and it was very refreshing to see all too evidently that they did not care much for the press and did not have a high opinion of them.
Whatever the rights or wrongs of Johnson’s going it was good to hear a plain Midlands accent laying it out simply and directly and an old pack leader getting his head down to take the pressure. He did not give much away, but he never did on the field. It was not so much assurance as dignity and sensibility.
The real delight was Andrew, a former fly half fleet of foot and accurate of boot who gave a display of good hard hand offs. “That is a hypothetical question. I am not answering hypothetical questions.” When asked what he was going to do, “We are going to work hard to find out how things can be done better.” Asked when he replied “As soon as I can get out of here.”
When a leading question suggested that the single defeat raised issues about the whole structure of the RFU he replied to that the problem was that the media seemed to know little or nothing about structures notably those with complex responsibilities and varied tasks.
He pointed out that the England Squad were just a smaller part of a larger whole and distinct in terms of its “elite status”. This more or less suggested that the media knew San Fairy Ann about most of the work of the RFU and were only interested in a single immediate aspect.
Andrew was at St. John’s College, Cambridge, founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort one of the most formidable and talented women in recorded English history (see 25 October 2011 on Shakespeare). She must have been grinning up there.
Johnson, as a youngster began his rugby with Wigston, a minor local club in Leicester. Later this merged with a more senior one, Westleigh and the new club took the name Leicester Lions, which I thought a bit naff, but there you go. After a couple of good seasons in League 2 North, the Lions are not doing so well.
So if Martin has some spare time, could he nip down to Blaby and apply some of his skills there?