My bona fide Atried press credentials failed to impress the good people at Rugby World Cup Media Operations sufficiently for them to accredit my late application for free tickets. In the end I was extraordinarily lucky for a spare ticket to become available the day before last Saturday’s encounter between England and Australia, a match dubbed the most important for English rugby in a decade. The anticipation was tangible.
A quiet drink on the Friday night with the guys that had gathered in London for the festivities got a little out of hand. The next morning I was informed by The Wife that it was 1:43am that I rolled in, information relayed with a direct accuracy that suggested I was not as quiet as I thought I was being in the early hours. In all honesty, I was feeling a little jaded heading back out on the Saturday morning for our new meeting point, the fine Cricketers Arms on Richmond Green, but no better way to deal with these things than to get straight back in the saddle. The day started with a good lunch, a few looseners, and a post mortem of the quite spectacular ‘gentle opening night’ in the West End.
At 3pm we made the short stroll to the Fanzone that has been created in the old deer park to witness some quite extraordinary scenes. Put half a dozen fiercely contrasting nationalities in a field, all passionate about both their culture and their rugby, add large TV screens and enough beer to float a battleship, and you would think that trouble would be inevitable.
Not a bit of it. Green mixed with gold, white blended effortlessly with blue, and the soused mass scrum of multi-coloured rugby jerseys laughed in the sun as children kicked balls off to the side. Everything in the Fanzone, other than the shortage of toilets, was superbly done, with furlongs of efficient bars, a staggering array of food and entertainment options, and acres of space to find a spot close to the action without feeling claustrophobic. The buoyant atmosphere was an astonishing testament to what happens when you allow people to be human beings.
A few years ago Paul and I went to the Charity Shield at Wembley. Again, in the close confines of a crowded tube train, red and blue shirts mixed with good-natured banter. Then we came out onto Wembley Way and the stewards started separating the colours like a giant conveyor belt of washing. With allegiance to neither team Paul and I strode down the middle as the abuse began to be hurled, not the witty teasing of earlier but snarling aggression that came from somewhere dark and nasty. We were marooned in a no-mans land between the warring factions and so experienced all the venom that both sides had to offer without the comfort of kinship.
It was as clear an example as you could hope to see that when you artificially separate people they lose their perspective and their inhibitions. No matter that the man on the receiving end of your vitriol was happily sharing a carriage with you five minutes before. Segregation doesn’t offer comfort, it breeds distrust and anger, and putting up barriers only amplifies the ugliness.
The South Africa v Scotland match finished and we joined the procession up to Twickenham. A random Aussie joined us and gently joined in with the jovial conversation. We talked about how we were feeling about the match – yes, men from opposite sides of the world talking about their feelings, encouraged only by a shared passion for rugby and a few beers!
And the best thing about the universal armistice that rugby engenders? That kids were there in their hundreds to witness the best of adults. They saw their Dads chatting to strangers, they saw packs of young men being respectful to women, and they then saw all those people cheering on their chosen team through an intense eighty minutes of total commitment; with fervour, even a little bias at times, but with no hint of animosity to the guy sat next to them in a different jersey.
Twickenham stadium carries it off very well indeed. Cheerful staff, a hundred different stalls at which to get food and drink with relatively little queuing, and stewards to direct you to your seat. The atmosphere once inside the mighty arena was simply amazing. The cauldron of passion hits you like a steamroller as you take your seat and your senses are dazzled by a cacophony of noise and carnival of light. Our seats were the cheapest of an expensive bunch, but actually offered a tremendous birds eye view of the whole thing from near the half way line.
I won’t try to analyse the game, which has already been dissected by far sharper sporting brains than mine, and I certainly don’t need to tell you the result. I will simply say that there was huge disappointment among the tens of thousands who funneled back through Twickenham streets, but no sense of injustice.
Those same kids on the way home then saw dignity in both defeat and victory, as white and gold mingled and debated, congratulated and commiserated. Despite the cost, both the financial one of a full day at a major sporting occasion and the emotional one of a savage loss, I felt privileged to have added another life moment to my list, in the intimate company of a hundred thousand strangers.