England's untimely early exit, and last weekend the trio of Celts departing has left Northern Hemisphere fans glumly pondering what might have been...
By Will Macpherson
Bear with me here: I have never seen my Facebook newsfeed look quite like it.
First, the evening of Saturday October 3: England go out of the World Cup. Spleens are vented as to where Stuart Lancaster went wrong, why he’s not fit to coach England and how and why those keyboard experts could have run the national team better. Remember this game had kicked off at 8pm, so by the time the internet’s post mortem began, such analyses were taking place, no doubt, with the assistance of several yards of ale.
The following couple of days centred around informing your friends and followers that you “can’t believe England are out of the World Cup [insert sad emoji]”, while perhaps offering a slightly more succinct analysis of the team’s many shortcomings, perhaps – apropos of nothing – having a dig at some referee or another and definitely, absolutely definitely, complaining about the state of England’s pool. People emoted, people cared, they really did.
Social media’s next step, though, was much more dispiriting: the sheer apathy and the desperate rush to flog quarter-final tickets. “Two tix to Scotland v Australia at Twickenham, Sunday 19th, Cat B – face value (that’s £215)” became an unerringly familiar refrain. And who could blame them? Pay that much in expectation of seeing your team, why not try to get rid? Without fail, the same posted pictures of themselves at that very game, because they had not managed to shift the tickets. A World Cup quarter-final, whoever is playing, could hardly be filed under “chore”, especially given their outlay, but fair play to them for showing. Since, the World Cup has not registered. I anticipate murmurs this weekend, but little more.
There are those on your TVs and in your papers that will tell you the World Cup has charged on apace without England for the last couple of weeks, and will continue do so without any of the home nations this weekend. And, in a literal sense, they’re correct. The crowds have still shown up in their hoards (and been vocal in doing so), and the first round of finals rugby produced some glorious, riveting, heart-stopping stuff. The tournament didn’t need England and the World Cup has very much continued and will do for another week yet.
But really, they are completely mistaken. It’s away from the grounds we need to look to see the impact of England’s – and now the other home nations’ – premature departures. The reduction of column inches in the mainstream media is clear, with football creeping back to pre-eminence. Sunday’s semi-final has been relegated from BBC Radio Five Live to Five Live Extra. Okay, not biggies, but noteworthy.
This was rugby union’s great opportunity in England. In so many ways, there’s been so much to cherish; the improved excellence of the smaller nations, the grounds, the pool stage atmospheres and the brilliance of the four Rugby Championship sides. This tournament, though, was the chance to convert rugby’s many non-believers, to get people punch-drunk on the game and to use those empty words administrators (and Stuart Lancaster) so love to waffle on about: “legacy” and “inspiring a generation”.
Whichever way you square it, for this to happen, a strong showing was required from the hosts and the home nations. Partisan support is crucial if new fans are to get truly wrapped up in an event. This weekend, new fans on this side of the world may watch the games, but they will not be truly absorbed if they truly don’t care who wins. These games probably will not force them to pursue the sport further. That’s the brutal truth of it: this World Cup was supposed to go further and it has not.
In the UK, what we’re going to end up with is perhaps a few new fans alongside those who were already here. What remains at this stage of the tournament is what we started with. Part-time rugby fans and normal people (not many of whom can afford tickets, lest we forget) have got on with their lives again. That their last point of real, partisan interest in the tournament is likely to be Scotland going out as a result of a law they can’t have fathomed certainly won’t have helped.
The people saying such things are the people who would have been at these games anyway, and some of those are people who are paid to pump up the tournaments competitions tyres. They are people completely absorbed in the game and the tournament because that is their job, but a step back, away from the grounds and the games is required. It’s a lovely notion, that things have just continued being brilliant, but they need to use their imagination: what this World Cup could have been for rugby in this country.
It could have been a tattoo, imprinted on the public consciousness and there to stay for good; instead it’s one of those transfers you get at a kids’ birthday party – washing off in the rain. Its lost its fizz and that’s a shame. Make no mistake, it’s been a wonderful, absorbing World Cup for rugby fans, but the last fortnight has proved that the non-believers will continue on their merry way, because the Northern Hemisphere sides stunk the place out. It’s been the World Cup of what-ifs.