Back in 1990, I was working in a pub in the City of London. As the Five Nations that year drew to a conclusion, England and Scotland were due to meet in Murrayfield for a winner-takes-all encounter. The Calcutta Cup, the Triple Crown, the Championship and a Grand Slam were all up for grabs for whoever won. The British media were at one that it was to be England’s day.
The pub where I worked was frequented mainly by City-type bankers and stockbrokers, many of whom were committed rugger buggers. The night before the match was chaos, punctuated by occasional choruses of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” The one dissenting voice that could be heard all night was an ebullient Scot called Danny. He was having none of it. “I tell ye, we’re goin’ tae win!” he repeated incessantly, as he took bets from anyone who was willing to take him on.
The following day, Scotland held out for a 13-7 victory. On Monday, Danny arrived in at lunchtime with the biggest grin I have ever seen on any face. He held court in the middle of the pub as he collected his winnings. The banter was good natured, but one English guy was getting narked.
“Your problem Danny,” he remarked, “is that you’re prejudiced.”
“Me? Prejudiced?” replied Danny. “I couldnae gie a fuck who beats England!”
Danny could have been Irish or Australian and his attitude would probably have been the same. For some reason, our three nations have this “Anyone but England” attitude written into our DNA. The Welsh and the New Zealanders have it too, but to a lesser degree.
Speaking from an Irish point of view, it seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction. For years, I was the same. I couldn’t stand to see England do well at anything. Even if Ireland were doing really badly, it didn’t feel too bad as long as England were having just as torrid a time. There was also the satisfaction in seeing the former colonial overlord getting one in the eye.
In recent years, I have forced myself to reassess this attitude. Why should I feel this way about a country I lived in for all of my twenties, and for which I have very fond memories? Could it be the English media who famously go over the top whenever England win something? Well, the Irish media do the same whenever an Irish sporting triumph happens. We beat a weak England in Croke Park this year on the way to a Triple Crown, er, triumph, and there were pull-out supplements, wall posters and the like in the newspapers the following Monday.
In the 2003 World Cup I gave my grudging support to England in the final. As far as I was concerned, it was better than Australia winning it for the third time and at least England were a northern hemisphere team. But I couldn’t muster any sense of jubilation when Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis. It was a stupid attitude to have as England fully deserved that win, as they had been the best team in the world for quite some time, and had closed out the deal by winning the world cup. I think it was to do with the pre-World Cup hubris that surrounded the team, much of which was generated by the media. There was also Protocolgate at Lansdowne Road the previous spring, which was still fresh in our minds.
I was lucky enough to board the Prawn Sandwich Express to Twickenham for Ireland’s match against England in March 2004. It was England’s first match back home since winning the World Cup, and they hadn’t been beaten at Twickenham for something like five seasons. But Fortress Twickenham fell that day to a rampant Irish side, who won 19-13. Ireland could just as easily have lost, as Ben Cohen had a try disallowed for a double movement, and another ref or TMO might have given it.
There was no bitterness about the loss among the England fans. I had my hand shaken by dozens of white-shirt clad fans, who had no issue with our win, or the manner in which it was achieved. That night, our group of Irish fans partied hard with throngs of English fans. We had drunken reminiscences about past successes and failures. I think it was that weekend that my attitude changed completely.
It is entirely healthy to want your own team to beat arch-rivals. But it is an entirely different matter when you wish those rivals to be beaten in any circumstances. I have many close ties to England, friends, extended family, etc., not to mention my time living there. I have no ties to South Africa whatsoever, have never been there, and have no overbearing desire to go. Maybe one day I will, but it’s not on the agenda right now.
So on Saturday night, I will be supporting England to retain the World Cup. I know that to some this is like an act of betrayal against Ireland’s patriot dead. But you gotta admire the English. They got hosed by South Africa in the group stages, but came back to beat Australia and France in the quarters and semis. If they win, it won’t have been the best team in the world that will be world champions, but that would be true of a South Africa win too. England are rank underdogs and have nothing to lose. No-one expected them to get this far. There was nothing like the pre-tournament hype we saw in 2003.
But there is another (selfish) reason. Our record against England as world champions stands at P4 W4 D0 L0. It would be nice to have another four years of annual pops against the world champions. Unlike Danny, I do give a fuck who beats England. I prefer them to be beaten by a team wearing green, just not the shade their opponents will be wearing on Sunday.