On the eve of the Rugby World Cup final, Austin Healey wrote that the winners would be remembered for ever and the losers would be forgotten. It sounds cruel, but I fear it may be the truth. I can still recite the names of every player in Sir Clive Woodward’s triumphant team of 2003, but I barely recall any of England’s losing finalists in 2007, except for the handful who had survived from 2003.
Healey, who appeared in England’s World Cup squad in 1999 and just missed out in 2003, wrote: “England’s players will be written about as the best-ever if they win tomorrow. If they lose, it will feel like a meteor has hit them.”
The misery of Eddie Jones’s team after the match, when some of them didn’t even want to wear their runners-up medals, was all too plain to see. What will have shaken them was the contrast with their semi-final victory over New Zealand, which made them look and feel like world champions.
People ask: how could a team play such superlative rugby one weekend, then allow themselves to be pushed and kicked off the park only seven days later? The fact is that such reversals are not uncommon in rugby, or indeed in any sport. Only a couple of months ago Australia smashed the All Blacks one week, then were smashed themselves a week later.
In the cricket series in West Indies in 1994 England were crushed by the pace attack in the first three Tests and then, miraculously, won the fourth by 208 runs. I was there. It was their first victory in Barbados since 1935, thanks to a century in each innings by Alec Stewart.
At Yokohama last weekend England looked beaten from the third minute, when Kyle Sinckler took no further part in the match after being knocked out. This is not to say that the tight-head prop alone would have brought about a different result, but that early momentum in such matches can often be decisive, as England had shown when they shocked the All Blacks with a try in less than two minutes.
For Eddie himself, the defeat will be a lasting disappointment, having now lost two finals as coach, the first one for Australia against England in 2003. That result was at least a tight one, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal settling the result in the last minute of extra-time.
When he was asked after the match how he accounted for the remarkable change in England’s performances, he replied: “Dunno, mate.” He added later: “I’ve been coaching for 23 years and it happens periodically. You think you’ve got a team right and ready to go and for some reason they don’t perform. Why? I don’t know. It’s sport, mate.”
And of course he’s right. Michael Atherton, who had played on that West Indies tour in 1994, wrote the other day that uncertainty and unpredictability are part of the essence of sport. Once you knew for certain what the outcome of any match would be, it would have ceased to be sport at all
Much has been made of the fact that England have won only one rugby final in four, while the Springboks have won all three in which they have appeared. Although the recent final was a humbling loss for England, in which South Africa exposed them as second best in nearly all aspects of the game, their previous two final defeats were much closer.
In fact, one could say that in 1991, a match I saw at Twickenham, England should have beaten Australia and in 2007 they could have won against South Africa.
In 1991 England had reached the final by storming play from the forwards, followed by Rob Andrew penalties. Yet coach Geoff Cooke and captain Will Carling had convinced themselves – wrongly, as it turned out - that Australia had the best pack of forwards and England’s only hope was to throw the ball around. Their best forward, Dean Richards,
Fly-half Rob Andrew was instructed not to play his normal game and to open things up by passing every time he got the ball. Not once did he test Australia’s vulnerable back three with high kicks to the corner. At half-time, when the running game had clearly failed and the England pack were looking strong, the tactics remained unchanged.
Even then England should have scored a try when the Australian winger, David Campese, stepped in to knock forward a pass that would have given Rory Underwood a clear run-in to the line. The referee awarded a penalty when, these days, a deliberate knock-on in that position would have brought at least a yellow card and quite possibly a penalty try.
In 2007 England were beaten 36-0 by South Africa in a pool match, yet fought their way through to the final to play the Springboks again. They lost a tight match after what looked to be a good try by winger Mark Cueto was disallowed by the fourth official, the referee having been unsighted. Film of the incident supports Cueto’s contention that modern replay techniques would have shown that his foot was not in touch and the try was legitimate.
Like Eddie Jones, England’s losing coach that day, Brian Ashton, was deprived of the game’s highest honour – and probably a knighthood as well.
Maybe the explanation for sudden changes in form is simple. As Werner Erhard, the American expert on self-improvement, put it: “When you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not, you’re not.”
Sex lesson in Dublin
When I saw that Gay Byrne, the immensely popular Irish talkshow host, had died at the age of 85, my mind went back many years to the time I appeared on his programme. I was in Dublin to promote a book I had just written about snooker. After my interview, I joined a panel discussion with his other guests.
One of them had written a book about sex. When I was asked to contribute to the discussion, I replied: “I’m sorry, I know a bit about snooker but I don’t know much about sex.”
At this a toothless old crone in the audience stood up and shouted: “You’d better come home with me, you darlin’ man, and I’ll show you all about sex.” Much to my embarrassment, this was going out live on TV.
I realised the next morning how big a star Gay Byrne was when I went through customs at Dublin airport on my way home. They just waved me through with a smile.