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  • October 8th, 2015 by
    England man with rugby ball

    Humiliation. Disaster. Failure. Just a handful of the words that greeted England’s fallen rugby team in the Sunday’s papers after their premature exit from the World Cup on Saturday night. England was comfortably brushed aside against an Australian side that was full of discipline, inventiveness and mischief in good measure.

    Truth be told, the English came up short in everything, failing to summon in sufficient quantities the skill, strength, discipline or composure that might have carried them over the line. They’re a good team, but not a great one, and this loss was not a shock.

    Upon the shoulders of these players, however, lay the joint burdens of national expectation and inflated sense of optimism (think of all the pre-tournament talk of potential triumph) – and those two are generally a fatal combination in sport. There’s only ever one winner, and it’s generally the favourite. Were England ever clear favourites?

    Have we allowed ourselves to forget that we lost the Six Nations pretty comfortably only a few months ago, and that our team hasn’t been revolutionised in the intervening period? Did the pre-tournament record of one win, one loss against France not remind us of our place as goods, but not greats? Are we so quick to forget that we lost to Australia, a genuinely world class outfit who represent one of the most likely contenders to win the tournament?

    All of this points to a bigger question: how have rugby fans fallen prey to the same attitude of over-expectancy that abounds in English football? The English under-performed against the Welsh – all on home turf and after throwing away a ten point lead at the mid-point the second half; but against the Australians, they were well-beaten. When we talk about disaster, then, are we not being unfair? When we cry “humiliation,” we surely overstep the mark. Have we lost all sense of perspective?

    For the players, coaches, and everyone around them, this was all a disaster, felt with a keenness unknown to the supporters. Their profession demands that they spend years preparing to perform to the highest standard in a profoundly public way. Their single metric of success is victory; failure is self-explanatory. Triumph and defeat, ecstasy and despair flirt cruelly with each other over the course of a mere 80 minutes, the team’s reputation all the while held agonisingly below the awaiting dagger blow of public contempt.

    We’re at the top table, but we’re not top dogs. Until we either accept that or address that, we’re going to continue to carry the weight of disappointment, and our teams will most likely struggle.  Let’s be clear – I’m certainly not calling for us to abandon all hope of success. It would be pretty grim to enter sporting tournaments with a defeatist sense of foreboding. However, we’ve been alarmingly quick to forget that these English players were walking a knife-edge during this tournament: the stakes were always high, and their games against the Welsh and Australians were never certain victories. Perhaps we owe a bit of sympathy and respect for a group of England players, who frankly, would have been defying probability if they had gone on to win the world cup.

    Yes, Saturday night was certainly humiliating for England’s players. No-one will know that better than the players themselves, dismissed as they were so ruthlessly from the tournament to which they play host by their great rivals the Australians. Deriding them as a humiliation – both coach and captain have already made public apologies – is simply not the collective response we should provide. Sport offers us emotional highs and lows, a sense of camaraderie and joy that we so often fail to muster in our daily lives – but it carries the risk of defeat and we should participate in that too, not just condemn our players. We should not forget that were it not for a few twists of fate, we would be celebrating great success. When we win, we’re in it together; so should we be when we lose.

    England rugby team line up

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