On Saturday, I had the rather wonderful pleasure of spending the afternoon at a small, inconspicuous little rugby football club known as Twickenham. Along with thousands of other souls, I was there to experience the thrill of English rugby. As ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ boomed out of the speakers, we certainly hoped it would be glorious.
I’ve been to Twickenham a couple of times before, watching England play obscure eastern European teams whose players probably have less experience than the average Rugby Blog reader. And, in a rather tenuous claim to rugby fame, I was even lucky enough to walk on the pitch once, when my school band played the anthems for an England vs France Under-18s match.
But to witness the opening of a Six Nations campaign, fought at the iconic home of English rugby, with our slain giants eager to regain their pre-eminent status, or at least shatter the idea that Italy might actually have a chance of beating them; well that’s a whole different ball game.
I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but the whole experience is utterly terrific – from strolling through the sunshine to the stadium, to sharing doughnuts with the friendly policemen (the enterprising folk of Twickenham clearly know how to look after their visitors), to discussing the hot topic of the day – the selection of Andy Goode – with the other punters – there can barely be a better way to spend an afternoon.
And to top it off, the chaps at O2 were kind enough to offer us some hospitality before the game, in a sort of grown-ups inflatable fun dome called the Blueroom. Pie ‘n’ mash and a free pint or two? Don’t mind if I do!
And so to the rugby…
We had great seats – a proper, whites-of-their-eyes viewing position at the half-way line. There was something surreal and exciting about seeing some of my sporting heroes at close range. And, despite being just a dot in a crowd, I felt a pang of nerves and expectation as play started – seeing the likes of Vickery and Sheridan, and even Martin Johnson huddled down on the sidelines, it occurred to me that for the fans, it is almost inconceivable that these herculean figures no longer comprise the best team on earth.
Well by now, you’ll have digested all the analysis of the match and there is little to add here. But suffice to say, from where I was sitting, England weren’t so much a pride of lions as a pack of hyenas, scavenging for scraps of loose ball and trying to capitalise on Italy’s mistakes.
This they certainly did. The flourish of Goode in the first few minutes, and indeed the momentary flashes of brilliance from the likes of Flutey and Ellis, that helped to inflate the scoreboard were certainly entertaining, and frankly, a big relief for the nervous crowd, but it never quite felt that England were completely in control.
Their healthy lead and the chaos of the diminished Italian team should have set them up nicely for a strong, well-controlled and creative second half, but it never quite materialised. I’m not sure the crowd could quite believe it when the fifth try was scored. Did we really manage that score from that performance?
As we ambled back to the train station afterwards, buoyant not so much from the win, but from the whole glorious match-day experience, we started plotting when we might be able to do it again. But while I’m sure the Millenium Stadium is equally fabulous, I’m not sure I’d want to be in Cardiff next weekend…