Wilkinson, Dallaglio and co want to help inmates turn their lives around through rugby, but England’s most famous team have demons of their own to exorcise.
On the RFU’s website, there’s a page on ‘Rugby Values’ and ‘Teamwork’ is the first one listed. And with good reason. For many of us, rugby is the ultimate team sport, with experiences on the field of play and in the clubhouse creating unbreakable bonds that transcend time, sport and circumstances.
It’s weird then, that the ultimate England team – that immortal, iconic group who captured the Rugby World Cup in 2003 – need ITV to send them to literal prison in order for them to feel the impulse to have a pint together.
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It’s a startling revelation – around two thirds into this first episode of the dreadfully titled Grand Slammers – when Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Phil Vickery, Jason Robinson, Mike Tindall, Will Greenwood, Matt Dawson and Ben Cohen meet up in a sunny pub garden, and it’s remarked that this is the first time they’ve been for a drink in 20 years.
It’s a rather sad revelation, and one that asks questions about the myths rugby holds true to itself. After all, if the greatest of all England teams, who have the most special and meaningful moment that any rugby player could ever dream of to hold fast to, can’t stay mates, are any of us really forging the bonds we tell ourselves we are?
In truth, this tension makes Grand Slammers more interesting than its ‘School Of Even Harder Knocks’ premise suggests (Greenwood especially must be experiencing serious deja vu and wondering where Scott Quinnell is). Certainly on evidence of this first episode, the focus is going to be more on the England legends than the prison inmates they’re here to help.
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There’s a tension there, that speaks to how a rugby team is ultimately a collection of very different individuals with very different views. It’s typified by the stark contrast between Vickery’s moral absolutism regarding their new charges’ previous indiscretions. This feels perhaps more profound than any hollow ‘values’ platitudes would.
Part One of Grand Slammers review
Whether any of this is intentional from anyone involved is more debatable, however. If it was, would they have decided to devote quite so much airtime to the forced and tedious banter between England legends as opposed to something, y’know, actually funny?
But despite it not knowing whether it wants to be a reality TV retread of the Longest Yard, or something more interesting about the real power of rugby and teamwork, there’s plenty here that can hopefully be dug into in episode two.
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Wilkinson’s quasi-spiritual take on the art of kicking is mildly preposterous (“The ball knows what you want”), but it’s clearly effective. While putting him in the environment where he can use his wisdom and knowledge to lift people up paints him in a much more endearing light than the ITV Rugby studio ever has.
Perhaps the most compelling narrative of all is Ben Cohen’s. The former winger has more reason than anyone to resent the justice system in the UK, yet here he is giving maximum effort for men who are not far removed from the individuals who destroyed his family and got off far too lightly.
Cohen’s father Peter was attacked in a nightclub in 2002 before dying of a blood clot weeks later. Three men were arrested but were acquitted of manslaughter, instead being jailed for violent disorder in 2002 for which they were sentenced to three years.
Whether there will be time to dissect any of this – especially the impact that rugby is having on the tragic and sad lives of the inmates – in the second part is up for debate, especially with a boringly inevitable George Gregan-led ‘Australia’ match to hype up to.
If nothing else though, it’s definitive proof that no amount of success and great on field memories can guarantee that team-mates will be bonded for life. And a good reminder for all of us about what’s really important.
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