Diary

Karl Miller

By most of those who watched it, I imagine, the Rugby Union World Cup will be seen, now that the dust has settled, as a success, for all the aspects and episodes that there were to object to and quarrel over. But I doubt whether the same could be said of the discursive part of the ITV presentation of events. The party atmosphere which is sometimes thought by producers to be the thing on such occasions was given its head, and national sentiment ruled. The New Zealander David Kirk was first-rate: but the Scotsman too often talked through his kilt, and the Englishman proclaimed that he was absolutely sure that England would beat Australia in the final. At times it was like one of those ethnic jokes that people like to tell. There will never be a day when the national interest is invisible, or is reckoned to be invalid, in sport, but it is sad that it should have been obtruded to this degree, that the tournament should have been presented, by officials and by producers, as a Whitehall ceremony that was also a fairly jolly little world war. Much of this, admittedly, is, as they say, traditional, and I expect we shall have to go on looking at the players lined up like latex puppets to shake the toff’s hand and stare unflinchingly through the anthems. But perhaps New Zealand might one day be persuaded to drop that dubiously ethnic Maori war-chant: for a museum piece, it has a surprising capacity to sour the already fired-up, and it isn’t as if the All Blacks are as black as all that.

The peaks of the World Cup were, to my mind, the Ireland-Australia game and the semi-final between Australia and New Zealand. The courage and zeal of the Irish took them to within a point of their opponents: it was more than possible to wonder why their stand-off half, a superlative place-kicker, had been kept out of the national side for a decade. The semi-final was illuminated by an early slanting run from the co-author of a notable book on his experiences as a player, brought out on the eve of the tournament.[*] Tall, fast, inventive, much admired and much deplored, the Australian David Campese shaped to pass but didn’t and went on and over on his own. This was a ferocious encounter: it was also an honest one, and more or less foul-free. The All Blacks played very well in the unfamiliar role of catchers-up – having been discounted in advance by some British experts, their scrum half proved himself, throughout the tournament, flowingly effective and resourceful – and were more appealing in defeat that they ever were over the years of their unchallenged supremacy. They have tended to be very cold and grim. I can’t recall a single smile appearing on their winning faces during that time, and it seemed in keeping when Grant Fox, of the bankable kicks, was reported as saying, before the semi-final, that Campese’s ‘confidence’ would suffer when a few All Black sprigs – or studs – went ‘down his back’. The Australians of recent years have been a great contrast, an attractive, adult, smiling company, though Campese’s accounts of the Australian game supply a number of corrections to the picture.

It seems that national sentiment ruled at Murrayfield, no less than in the television studio. A friend of mine, once a Scottish scrum half and a man of many Murrayfields, spoke of the bitterness displayed by the rival followings (it was ignored on television) when Scotland met England in a contest which turned out temperate enough and which I’d claim, through my kilt, that Scotland were unlucky to lose. A Scottish forward wandered offside at a drop-out: together with an easy penalty kick that was missed, this small technical infringement gave away the points that made the difference between the sides. In the final, England went on to play as before to their forward strength: but they also tried, eventually, to run the ball. The Australian captain Nick Fan-Jones ‘dreaded’, afterwards, ‘to think what might have happened had England been used to getting the ball wide and knowing what to do with it when it really mattered’. That seems right, and Campese, the arch-exponent of running rugby, could be felt to be enlarging on this point, in anticipation, when he says in his book that

there is no crazier sight in the game than a team which has played dull, predictable rugby based on kicking for three-quarters of a game suddenly throwing the ball around the field as though it were a hot potato. What they are doing is throwing away their principles, too, because if you believe in a kicking game, then adhere to that. Don’t just switch to a totally different style only because you are behind and in trouble. What sort of a playing policy is that? Besides, if you suddenly start running the ball late in a game in which you have kicked the thing all afternoon, the opposition will be encouraged. They know that they have got you and that you are desperate. They will feel you are bound to make mistakes ...

Campese’s book contains sound predictions as to the outcome of the tournament, and sound estimates of particular players and policies. The gifted Jeremy Guscott doesn’t always deliver the ball when he should. Paul Ackford ‘made his Test debut against us at Twickenham at the ripe old age of 30 years nine months! You can’t accuse the Poms of rushing players into international rugby before they are ready for it, can you?’

I am not an expert on the rules of the game, recently and reasonably amended to keep the players on their feet: but I don’t see how anyone could be an expert on the rules of the game given the state they are in. The rules are intrusively pedantic, they can seem designed to reduce the interest of the game, and the players don’t appear to know what some of them are. Technical infringements, involuntary infringements, infringements which no player would want to commit and which the player can hardly have known that he was about to commit, are punished with a loss of too many points and allowed to decide too many games. As in soccer, the concept of the deliberate offence places an onus of decision on the referee which can only lead to injustice; both sports, moreover, are afflicted in general with over-refereeing and creative refereeing. Players are punished for not getting up, and for not parting with the ball, when they couldn’t have done either of these things. Meanwhile serious offences, buttings and bashings and rakings, are overlooked. The line-out is in disorder, and is currently policed mainly by means of a quietly dignified walk by the referee between the two towering lines – which immediately merge in a welter of pushes and dodges when the ball is thrown in. The line-out, in my amateur view, should be abandoned – consigned to the museum along with the All Blacks’ haka. The game would not then become featureless – the set-piece desert that Rugby League is apt to appear. This drawback is not, incidentally, among the reasons why Campese, as he keeps insisting, has never wished to take the money and move to the other game, which is the bigger and more glamorous of the two in Australia.

The runner Campese, perhaps the most exciting that the game has had in recent times, is in favour of running – though not as a frantic last resort:

  I accept that, especially in Test matches, there will be times when you have to kick. I am not a complete idiot, a total romantic fool who does not recognise that fact and wants only to run the ball all the time from every position. Besides, the surprise element which I believe is so valuable to the side attacking from deep in its own territory would be completely lost if every ball were run. But in an increasing number of games nowadays forwards are dominating matches and behind them, their first five-eighth is kicking the leather off the ball. That’s an ugly sight in a game which can produce some highly attractive play, and the trend disturbs me.

He is also the only player I have observed walking the ball over for a try: a specimen of that confidence of his which gets on people’s nerves and which has clearly not been exempt from anxieties, depressions and suspicions. He goes on here to explain:

Mine is a high-risk game, and I am bound to make errors. And I have to accept the flak when it does fly, because I am the kind of player who can lose as well as win a game. It’s great when it goes well, but you’re the chief clown if you have loused it up. You get all sorts of stick then. At least I am prepared to have a go, to put my head on the block, but rugby generally at the moment is far too cautious, it’s all safety first.

His principal error erupted in a Test against the British Lions in Australia, in 1989, when, fetching up behind his own line, he threw a wild pass which was snatched for a score. The outcry in Australia was deafening. His mates, he writes, cut him in the dressing-room. Then, in the World Cup final, he intercepted, with one hand, a pass to the wing that might have earned a try. This, he said, was impulse. For the Independent, the knock-on was an ‘outrageous’ act. For the England hooker, Brian Moore, it was a bad case of cheating. For me, it was something anyone might have done, perhaps, for god’s sake, hoping for a catch. A penalty was awarded. But there was talk of a penalty try, and some moralists would probably have preferred a thrashing.

Campese is no romantic fool, but no one would deny that he is a romantic player. The former Wallaby captain Andrew Slack has spoken of the ‘free-spirit driver’ associated with him, and he tells his readers a hundred times in his book about how free his spirit is. He is a loner and an owner, in a team game. The romantic runs with the ball. When push comes to shove, which it constantly does, and the ball is trapped in and around the scrum or the ruck, the romantic is locked out, an orphan. Rugby and stardom have separated him from his family and from a girlfriend, and from what has been going on outside the game, about which he is touchingly curious: ‘I hardly knew what was happening in the world.’ Elsewhere he writes: ‘I would like to say how grateful I am to all those with whom I have been close over the years in the little town of Queanbeyan – they have helped me get where I am today.’ Which is some way away from Queanbeyan. He has been bounded by the game, rather as he has been bounded by the error of his brilliant ways. To compound his isolation, he rates among the foreigners in a mostly Anglo-Saxon national side, and has moved to distance himself from Australia by playing for stints in Italy, land of his fathers. He has taken a great deal of stick; people are always being frank with him, both down there and over here. Not long ago Will Carling told him – sympathetically, it seems – that he would not have been picked for the English team. He goes about his book acknowledging mistakes, acknowledging that he belongs to a team, while justifying the risks he has taken.

There’s a touch of suffering in his accounts of the exclusions which he has faced and which he has sometimes courted. When it comes to authorities and to conventions he’s not really a patient guy. Nor is he the first lone star to discover that the public preoccupation with his talent incorporates a desire to extinguish it, to discover that there is a jealousy which can’t bear it, and which can’t help construing his errors as offences against morality and, of course, against the team. Both down there and over here, you can tell the star player without too much difficulty. He is the one with the character defect who should be left out of the team.

The most interesting passages in the book describe his ambivalent dealings with the former coach of the Australian team, Alan Jones, himself a star and an ego of Outback dimensions. Campese blames Campese severely for telephoning a couple of officials, towards the end of Jones’s time, in order to criticise the coach and suggest that some of his players didn’t want to play for him. This doesn’t seem outrageous either. These are circles in which lots of time would have been spent on the phone, and in which the coach must often have said, and got, what he wanted.

Rugby commentators in this country are in the habit of urging a return to, or a cultivation of, ‘the basics’, which usually seem to mean tackling and kicking, stopping play and shoving them up the park. There’s nothing basic about Campese; some of his tackles can look like senior citizens’ arrests. But his book does address a basic question which came to rewarding prominence during the World Cup. What is rugby for? Is winning everything? It may not look like that when you play to your strength with half your team and then lose. Before the final, however, there were plenty of voices to be heard, on ITV and in the press, complaining about those who had complained about the lack of spectacle in the England game, and talking with a gleam in the eye about the importance of victory. The trouble was that this absence of spectacle was directly related to England’s failure to develop a comprehensive team effort. It seems significant that unfancied Ireland did better than England against Australia. They pressed the Australians less hard, but did well in all departments of their game.

‘I’m not sure that importance is important,’ said the philosopher. There is an importance, that is to say, in what is often judged peripheral: in this case, moments, sights, passages of play, and the achievements of the defeated. It follows that the team that lost in the final did well enough in its own way, throughout the tournament, to claim credit for a very good World Cup, for a showing that is likely, even with the retirement of a few veterans, to sustain the current ascendancy of the semi-fledged English game in the arena of the European Five Nations contention.

[*] On a Wing and a Prayer by David Campese, with Peter Bills. Macdonald, 175 pp., £14.95, 26 September, 0 356 17958 3.