A tale of two games at Twickenham
March 28, 2002
England ran in five tries against Wales © PA Photos
Twickenham has witnessed two matches in the past five days at wildly different ends of the rugby spectrum. One was predictable and rather soulless. The other vibrant, and as thrilling a contest as the famous turf has staged in many a long while, which is good news and bad news for the game as a whole.
The bad news is that the non-event was in the Six Nations championship. The Welsh turned up in a transit van, and not in the coach-loads we normally expect. The atmosphere was subdued as a consequence, and the match ended as a contest once the initial Welsh assaults had been rebuffed. 'Swing Low' rumbled apologetically from the stands, and by the end, the match was taking place in almost ecclesiastical silence.
England's demolition of Wales, hot on the heels of similar treatment meted out to Ireland and Scotland, and the inevitable thumping to come of Italy, should have the warning signs flashing for the championship. The 'ground full' signs may soon have to be taken down at future matches, if the inevitability of the result is so overwhelming. Have you ever known so many tickets to be available in the build-up to an England-Wales match? Behind the scenes, you have to wonder if negotiations are being considered/started/continued for England and France to slink off quietly into the mist to be part of the new Five Nations championship involving the three giants of the Southern Hemisphere.
The good news though, was that a tier or two down from the elite, the fires still burn with passion and considerable skill. The BUSA final between St. Mary's and Brunel West London (or Borough Road as the romantics would still call them) featured any number of players who have professional contracts with senior clubs, and who rose to the occasion in marked contrast to the way that so many recent Varsity matches have fallen into a heap. It was tactically enthralling, but ultimately decided by errors of judgement that were a lesson for all in the game. Brunel's victory by two points was testimony to their forward domination in the first half, but also to the truly extraordinary decisions by the St. Mary's skipper to kick for touch and go for a try, when offered several cast-iron three points from kicks near the posts. At the start of the 2nd half, such a decision produced nothing, and left his side two scores, instead of just one, adrift of Brunel. Two further similar incidents later, but after St.Mary's had clawed their way back into the match at 20-18 down, a golden chance to take the lead was offered on a plate, but to the chagrin of their fans in the stands, was passed up in favour of a possible seven points. You know what happened. Playing catch up for the remainder of the game, St. Mary's just never did.
The former England coach Dick Best had a mantra that he would spout before every match. 'I don't care what you think, always take the points' (although it was said in a more to-the-point kind-of-a-way.) Never was the wisdom of that doctrine better borne out, than in this year's students' final, which despite that, was a fantastic advert for university sport, and for the ability of rugby, in the modern era, to enable would-be professional players to still pursue higher education qualifications.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention the women's final, won emphatically by a well-drilled UWIC side, who won a tournament that, amazingly in many ways, had more than 100 teams involved at the outset. A clearly orchestrated plan to find recruits from other sports such as hockey and swimming, has seen the Welsh university produce a team of all-round athletes who would surprise the many sceptics within the game who still have reservations about the quality of women's rugby.
Overall, the Universities' big day, on a glorious spring afternoon, was as fine a piece of entertainment as you could want at Twickenham. It deserved a bigger audience. So next season, why not forgo the Varsity match, which has been a damp squib for too many years, and pencil in the BUSA final in March instead. The weather's better, you don't get cold, and you'll see a better game. Believe me.
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