Out-thought, outrun...but wise enough to admit it

Ian Wooldridge

Last updated at 00:00 04 March 2002

APART from the foulmouthed English louts who occupied seats near me on return flight BA 327, there was nothing to cavil about concerning our day out in Paris.

When my neighbour remonstrated, their ringleader invited him to come outside, usually unwise when you are 25,000 feet above the English Channel, a height similar to that from which England fell in their quest for the Grand Slam.

Never trust those sedentary statisticians who compile lists of the incalculable. Two weeks earlier, on the strength of 40 minutes of scintillating brilliance at Twickenham, the gnomes behind the Zurich ratings had enthroned England as the greatest team in world rugby. Most bookmakers believed them. They chalked up England at 1-4, France 11-4.

Patriots never saw a problem.

Those French, full of quixotic genius one day, headless cockerels the next.

Never liked cold steel, you know, since Waterloo. And look at how the Maginot Line vaporised when the Nazis came rumbling down in 1940.

Pragmatists were marginally more cautious. Their hesitation was justified.

This was a wonderful rugby match, played on a crisp March day before a crowd of 79,502, the biggest ever to witness anything - including the 1998 football World Cup Final - in the beautiful Stade de France.

Forget for a moment that our blundering Government can't erect a stadium that can stage the World Peashooter Championships.

The immediate snag was that despite two tries - one by Jason Robinson, one by Ben Cohen, both of extreme athletic accomplishment, both during added stoppage time at the end of either half - England were less beaten than emasculated.

One suspects that Bernard Laporte, the French coach, had spent days poring over videotapes of England's spectacular, free-running exhibition against Ireland 14 days previously.

His plan was simple. Snuff England out before they could initiate another of those dazzling, pitch-wide penetrating runs. It determined the outcomeof the match. The French tacklingwas instant, hard, sometimes brutal. England were asphyxiated.

When they trailed 17-0, even the most optimistic England fan knew there was no way back. Jonny Wilkinson was never given the space to pull off a Scarlet Pimpernel in this one.

England never ducked a passionate issue. The 20-15 verdict reflected their tenacity. There should be no lamentations when you have witnessed a contest as good as this. The Grand Slam has gone somewhat earlier than usual, but words like shame should never enter into it. This is sport, a concept which, particularly in football, can be submerged beneath nationalistic fervour.

Mercifully, to a man and coach, England courteously conceded that on the day they had been outrun and outthought by the better team.

Much has been made of the fact that, in order to captain England, Martin Johnson had retained a benchload of lawyers and was able to postpone possible suspension for causing six stitches to be inserted in an opponent's face.

It has even been suggested that England's defeat was due to divine retribution, but I am not convinced that the Almighty, with all this trouble with Israel, India, Afghanistan and Stephen Byers, has much spare time to determine the result of a rugger match in Paris.

Of course Johnson should never have played. The expediency of a flawed judgment left English rugby stripped of honour. Anyway, it didn't work.

England lost.

I return to the three young Englishmen staggering home on BA Flight 327.

Before the match, a friend and I fraternised with French and English rugger fans in a classic Parisian bar.

The entente cordiale prevailed.

Last year I was in Sydney for the final match between the Lions and Australia. There were 18,000 British and Irish rugby supporters in town.

They drank and sang a lot and made many lasting friendships. I saw not a moment's bad behaviour.

I am well acquainted with boisterousness, drunkenness and bad language.

These three arrogant, wellheeled popinjays made life a misery for their fellow passengers and drove the chief steward to despair. They came close to giving soccer hooligans a good name.

Doubtless British Airways will be able to identify them and act accordingly.

They were the only blight on a day of brilliant rugby which saw England, our England, beaten out of sight.


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