Tuesday 12 December 2017

Let's enjoy the fun while England's misery lasts

Ed Butler

The Lions tour of 2009 will not go down in history as a series to celebrate as a victory, but it earned a place for itself in the annals as a tour when all the players seemed to enjoy themselves, without ever being anything other than fully committed to an often brutal series of Test matches. The more exacting the ordeal, the more they seemed to embrace the experience.

Of course, a Lions tour comes at the end of the northern season, when it is easier -- essential even -- to weave quality down-time into the schedule. It is easier when there is an automatic level of trust between the coach, Ian McGeechan, who orders relaxation and the players who take up the invitation.

Before their away game in Rome, England went out of their way to stress how relaxed they were in camp, how much more at ease they were with themselves compared with . . . what? They never specified what the point of reference was, but they swore that they were enjoying themselves now. The trouble was that they did not play against Italy as if they were engaged on a great labour of love. And that led to a retreat off the pitch, snarling at any mention of liberating the style.

They then played with laboured caution against Ireland and lost, and any sense of fun was subsequently confined to the small print of the exchanges between the lawyers over whether James Haskell was or was not eligible to play for Stade Francais against Toulouse. That is supposed to imply that there was precious little to chuckle about. In the England camp, that is.

Defeat may have taken a weight off their broad shoulders, but the mood of Twickenham, restlessly muted even before the ball was kicked into play eight days ago, seems to have stuck. England are struggling and everything that has happened since their first defeat in this year's Six Nations seems to have made the gloom darker.

Blame for a style drawn from the cautious side of undemonstrative has been pinned on relegation in the Guinness Premiership, the trapdoor that apparently makes every player afraid to take a bold step. Such an influence may come as something of a surprise to the think tanks at Leeds, Worcester and Sale, who might be excused for feeling that if they had a few more fully fit England internationals in their ranks they might not be in the dogfight to avoid the drop.

There is an extension of the English malaise, in that it dominates coverage of the Six Nations and spreads into corners where rugby may not be viewed quite so lugubriously. Wales, for example, do not seem to be glum. What is more, Wales have lost twice on the field and once off it as Andy Powell meandered off the fairway in his buggy and onto the M4 motorway.

Things are slightly off-course in Wales, but the mood is strangely upbeat. There is the odd call for a refund on half the price of a ticket, given that Wales do not start until after half-time, but there has been something so completely abandoned about their approach to the task of second-half redemption that their nation can't help but adore them. Shane Williams, now 33, could suffocate in the hug of his people.

And Italy, who share the same record of one victory and two defeats as Wales, must surely have gone several stages beyond the state described by their coach, Nick Mallett, on the eve of the tournament. Asked about the impact of rugby, he said that Italians in general knew what the Six Nations was.

Since he sort of finished the observation there, it left the impression that he was not exactly planning on ordering the ticker-tape for a Grand Slam parade around Naples. But you could just tell from the atmosphere at the Stadio Flaminio on the days when his team came close to upsetting England and did beat Scotland that Italy truly understands what rugby weekends in the Six Nations are all about and that you do not have to play with sparkle and wit. The audience will settle for bravery and passion.

At this stage of the season, with everybody's ongoing needs to consider, England can't even go on the lash. No life of the Lions in March. Instead, they huff and fail to mask their irritation. And the rugby countries that surround them cannot prevent themselves from sniggering. It is the way of the world. Everybody knows England will snap out of it one day but the fun should be enjoyed while the misery lasts.

Sunday Independent

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