Intrepid Rugby World Cup Correspondent Alexander Bisley talks about not fighting back, Welsh Journalists and Dark Satanic Mills.
“I ain’t doin’ nothin’,” the shaven-headed mugger said as he relieved me of the 47 pounds worth of notes and shrapnel in my wallet. I was being mugged by an evil Ali G.
“Give me that money,” he said with rising agitation and then he snatched my England v Wales ticket from me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that game was already over, and, more than likely, so were England’s chances. I gave him the money, and the ticket. And we parted ways.
That this all took place at 1am in Lavender Hill after a match that effectively sent rugby’s most rich and powerful union crashing out of their own tournament makes me laugh now. At the time, however, I was as jittery as a Georgian before facing the Russians. My Ngapuhi warrior tupuna would disapprove of me handing over the loot without a fight, but I didn’t want to take the risk of him going full Tom Wood on me. Maybe the Jezziah is right about renationalising the trains?
Ah but what an evening that was. It is an evening which seems so, so long ago now, but it is one which still frames this tournament and all its strangeness.
And there has been strangeness: England passing out at their own party, nonsensical judicial decisions, a Japanese team beating the Springboks and subsequently becoming the first team in history to win thrice in pool play and fail to advance. Twenty-five million Japanese watched their resounding victory over Samoa. That fact made everyone feel this was a world cup.
Japan would have been in the quarterfinals had it not been for the fact Samoa were robbed by referee Jaco Peyper against Scotland. Skipper Kahn Fotuali’i and coach Stephen Betham were exceedingly gracious when I asked them what they thought afterwards but, the fact is, Peyper wasn’t good enough; and it’s not the first time this tournament has delivered a below-par performance.
The Manu played with the the old spirit that we feared had been left behind for this tournament. Stars included recent Hurricanes Jack Lam and Ray Lee-Lo, playing with ‘Canesian dynamism. The irrepressible Alesana Tuilagi was not there of course. Ludicrously banned for the match, he led the team in a touching siva tau for supporters post-game.
I sat at Millenium Stadium on Sunday night. A distinguished Welsh journalist exclaimed to me, “I’ve never experienced anything like it!” We were surrounded by the sound of tens of thousands of French and Irish fans in full voice. It reminded me of the 2011 match between Ireland and Italy in Dunedin when the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium seemed barely able to hold the noise in.
Later, even as the Irish gained dominance in the second half, hearty strains of La Marseillaise and chants of “Les Bleus” rang out through that great rugby cathedral. Ireland – ten times better than they were against Italy – and their heroic defence kept France out. It’s was all so visceral and primal that you felt you were in the game, living the tackles, feeling your own muscles burning.
We sat right in the noise, on the press seats, on the 50-metre line, up close. This was the thirteenth pool game for me. My Welsh colleague said, “I don’t want these pool games to end.”
But they have ended and the quarterfinalists have been found and the All Blacks were not flash by their standards but they built. They overcame the Georgians and they hinted at their potential when they defeated those fifteen Tongan men playing with a relentless, dedicated physicality that evoked the best of Pacific Island rugby. The crowd at St James’ Park rose as one for the challenges of these two teams, and then yelled and screamed for the next eighty minutes.
And that’s maybe is what this story is about. Travelling around this country one notes how little England’s feeble capitulation has stifled the enthusiasm for this tournament, from the dark satanic mills of the Birmingham suburbs to right here, today, in Cardiff – possibly the only place in the world more rugby obsessed than New Zealand – where its another beautiful day in the city centred around the extraordinary Millennium Stadium.
It takes me back twenty years to rural Wairarapa, excitedly getting up early and walking through paddocks to our neighbours’ to watch the All Blacks dazzle in South Africa.
South Africa are still there. But another week away. France comes first. And the singing folk of Cardiff are familiar with this refrain. The All Blacks know better than most about being mugged at Rugby World Cups.
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