Sunday, 15 February 2009


I am usually, after more than three decades in Britain, an ABE supporter. That is, Anyone But England. There are exceptions to the rule: certain football matches, say, against Italy, any matches against Australia, and rugby against New Zealand or Wales. The common denominator in all those situations is that the games mean entirely too much to the other side, who are generally willing to sink to any depths of sportsmanship to win, and whose supporters adopt terminal myopia in pursuit of those wins.

So watching yesterday's rugby match in Cardiff I felt a slight sympathy for the English (and great sympathy for Martin Johnson). For the Welsh, getting one back against the English is important, and I have great sympathy for that, but rugby is just about all they have left, just about the only way they have to do that. Thus England's rugby players have to bear the brunt of despair over centuries of wanton domination and exploitation.

When I was in college we played in the Little Three, of which Wesleyan was definitely the littlest. So we would play Amherst and Williams, and have our series wrapped up, before encountering nearby Trinity in our final game of the season. We had played our two big games, and then we would meet up with a squad, and their fans, fired up beyond belief for what was their chance to salvage their season, if not, it seemed, their lives. This, on a small scale, is what England face on a massive level when they go to Cardiff.

Having said all that, England make it hard to support them. For the better part of the three decades I've watched them, they've played plodding, brusing, straight ahead rugby--even when they had the ability or potential to be far more expansive, and so it was yesterday. Watching the ball never get beyond Andy Goode, watching it being kicked constantly back to the Welsh, who when they were willing to run with it did some damage, reminded me of Ireland's near-implosion against France the week before, for the same reasons. Possession is crucial to rugby, and although territory is as well, it seems they are still contemplating the lessons American football learned in the 1940s, when they stopped punting the ball away on third down inside their own territory. Of course reaching touch when you kick for it would also help.

But with the prissy Jonathan Kaplan referring, many of the things I find most frustrating about rugby came to the fore. Having denied Wales a quick-restart try in the first half by turning his back, he then reduced England to 14 men for the second time in the match by penalising Goode for (it has to be said, blatantly) denying the Welsh the ball for a quick-restart after a penalty near the English goal. Two things bother me about this. First is, in a sport that is so dominated by the referee, the idea that he can blow the whistle to award a penalty, but a player can simply pick the ball up and restart, even though the situation causing the penalty (for example, offsides) may not be resolved, is bizarre in the extreme.

Second, forcing a team to play short-handed is a severe punishment, which seems to be reserved for when the referee himself feels his will is being thwarted. Twice in the match Kapland awarded the Welsh an easy three points PLUS ten minutes playing with an extra man for
technical offenses (Mike Tindall seemed to be withholding the ball from play with his face) BECAUSE he knew Johnson had admitted he wanted to slow the game down. In either case, three points was just punishment; if he really thought the Welsh would score from a quick-tap give them a penalty try and listen to the uproar then. The justification is that Kaplan had already lectured the England players: the problem is any sport which demands that referees lecture the players in mid-match needs to rethink its defination of 'free-flowing action'. People are always accusing American football of having too much stop-start, and I agree, but those same people don't seem to mind when a rugby match stops for two minutes while Jonathan Kaplan plays Mr. Chips.

In fact, if Americans prefer their referees to resemble lawyers (if not judges) the English sports demand they be schoolmasters.

But when Lee Byrne cynically took out Delon Armitage's legs while he was in midair fielding a high kick, a blatant attempt to seriously injure him, Kaplan merely blew his whistle for a free kick. The message in rugby is clear: referees are to be protected, not players.

Like most Southern Hemisphere refs, Kaplan dislikes the very idea of scrummaging, and refused to let anyone dominate, usually forcing three or four tries to get each scrum working. His idea of a straight line doesn't transfer to the northern hemisphere; he didn't bother checking on whether put ins were straight: the scrum halves appeared to be playing rugby league. Lineouts weren't much better: Kaplan penalised England for a particularly diagonal throw, but left the Welsh alone, especially in the first half.

Although Kaplan was the dominant figure in the match, he didn't hand the Welsh the victory. The English threw away their opportunities through indiscipline (not just the penalties, but the sloppy kicking) and their reluctance to run the ball. But the spectacle itself, which was involving, was never compelling, and the result left my predomiantly ABE status intact.

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