What to do now? Having summoned up the mental strength to watch one possible wash-out against Australia, we had to summon it again last night to get through another wringer of a rugby match, this time against an experienced and disciplined France full of passion and home-advantage. Now all is to do again.

If we have to summon up the mental wherewithal to watch, just imagine what it is to take part. We cannot begin to grasp the reserves of energy, courage and pain-absorption that are required for eighty minutes of Test Match Rugby any more than our forbears could imagine what was required of a man’s soul to fight in the trenches on the Western Front in the Great War. By that I do not mean to make the playing of a mere sport the moral equivalent of fighting a war. But one can draw some parallels.

Forget for a moment about the notion of fighting for ‘King and Country’. For the Rifleman or Trooper his loyalties in battle, as any veteran will tell you, lie with his immediate comrades, where there is a profound willingness to risk all for the man next to you with whom you have trained, travelled, eaten and drunk for months and years and who has become your friend. For that friend men will do the unthinkable and offer up their all. And all this at the level of the Platoon or the Troop: only after this come thoughts of Regiment and Country.

Rugby has that quality for it requires you to put your body in the line of fire to provide your mates with the chance to win, sometimes with dire consequences of serious injury. Many players graft away in the shadows of the scrum and the ruck, unseen save by the expert eyes of the coaches and the commentators. Unlike soccer’s prima donnas, the unseen grafters of rugby are just pleased to have done their bit, out of sight, unnoticed, to lay the platform for others to take the points.


That crunching tackle is the product of not wanting to let your team mates
down. You know that it is going to hurt. Yet the tackle goes in, the opposition is shocked and awed by the sheer unflinching physicality of it and part of the mental battle of rugby is won on the back of that physical pain. All this for the other fourteen men in your team and the other twenty-nine in your squad.

Was it not this quality that Shakespeare understood when he conjured up the line : “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”?

One does not wish to offend the adherents of that other game which bears the name football, so I will not mention the unappetizing spectacle of the squealing forward writhing in faux agony on the floor after a minor piece of unintentional contact with a hapless opponent.

The beautiful game? In a pig’s eye, perhaps.

Meanwhile, let us salute our gallant opponents of last night, the French. Not for a moment did they give up on their dream. They committed themselves with the same degree of intensity as the English, took the same risks, gave their all in their cause. It was a pity that someone had to lose and the French proved themselves as worthy of praise and respect for their courage and élan as the English. The difference between them was almost ephemeral. Their dignity in defeat was as commendable as their distress was understandable. Had they won through and not us, they had done enough to win our support next week, such was the strength of their contribution to the spectacle.

Instead it is we who have to stiffen the mental sinews anew to sit on the sofa and endure eighty minutes of agony as we watch our heroes match the physicality and hunger of either the Springboks or the Pumas. Whoever it is, each is an old enemy, so once more we can, in our mind’s eye, see the contest as war conducted by other means.

And for us arrogant English, what finer thing can there be than sticking it once more to Die Boere or Los Gauchos, Johnny Foreigners to a man?

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