People often wrongly assume rugby union is defined by weeks such as this. England v France, all the “le Crunch” hoopla, the wider Six Nations equation, the millions watching on television. It matters, of course it does, but – as any French supporter will tell you – it barely scratches the surface of what the game is truly about.
It is a bit like announcing the only wine worth drinking is the stuff they pour (or used to) in Paris’s fancier restaurants. If, on the other hand, you hail from a small southern French town or village there are earthier, more soulful considerations involved. It is le terroir that gives their wine its fundamental characteristics and lends it real depth. It is the same, in a lot of ways, in rugby.
In France the traditional concept of l’esprit de clocher also applies: from Bayonne to Brive to Béziers it is considered vital to uphold local honour on the rugby field no matter what. And if the national side select a new cap from the Basque county, the Corrèze or the Hérault it remains a matter of intense pride. In Auch in Gascony there is a statue of the famous musketeer D’Artagnan but even he would have struggled to be picked ahead of the town’s legendary petit general, Jacques Fouroux, who captained and coached France to three grand slams.
All this is worth mentioning as English rugby wrestles with its identity once more. Is it primarily reflected, for better or worse, in the varnished end product at Twickenham or is it better found in places such as the Mennaye Field in Penzance last Saturday? Two things can be true at once but the torrent of social media feedback following Cornish Pirates’ famous win against a chastened Saracens strongly suggests the Rugby Football Union and Premiership Rugby should reconsider their relationship with grassroots clubs in general and the Championship in particular.
Everything about the Pirates’ bountiful 80 minutes was heartwarming: the character in adversity, the David versus Goliath narrative, the desire to prove there is more to rugby than mere money, the warmth it generated in Cornish hearts worldwide. There has not been a “boilover” to compare with it on English rugby soil since Japan took down South Africa in Brighton during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
Given Jones was the Japan head coach on that famous day it was disappointing, then, to hear him suggest the future health of the Championship was “something I don’t really worry about”. Maybe he was more preoccupied with cheering up his downcast Saracens players but if the English national coach is not bothered about the state of the league that helps to shape tomorrow’s fledgling stars then he most definitely should be.
Any number of current or recent England players know better. Owen Farrell, George Kruis and Mako Vunipola either played or trained at Bedford, as did Scotland’s Ali Price and Duncan Taylor. Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ellis Genge all had formative spells at Plymouth Albion, Harry Williams and the Wales trio Callum Sheedy, Kieran Hardy and Will Rowlands learned plenty at Jersey. The list goes on and on.
At Wasps, according to their prolific former Bedford winger Josh Bassett, around half the club’s current squad believe the Championship has played a key role in their development. “If there wasn’t a Championship I wouldn’t be a professional rugby player,” Bassett said flatly, reflecting on the chance it gave him and other late bloomers not fast-tracked through the private school system or via a Premiership academy.
His head coach Lee Blackett, once of Leeds and Rotherham, feels the same way. “It’s had a massive say in my career, both playing and coaching. I’ll always have the utmost respect for that competition. Sometimes academy players who go and play in it are shocked at how good a level it is. Everything worldwide has changed so it’s a really tough one finance wise. But in an ideal world we’d have a fully professional Championship. I definitely think there’s a place for it.”
It was Bassett, though, who best summed up the crucial connection English rugby risks losing if it fails to revisit the central funding cuts threatening to tear the heart out of its second tier. “These clubs have got a heritage. If you take that away you’re taking something away from the town, which it doesn’t deserve. The Championship has a place not just in developing rugby players but in nurturing the game of rugby as a whole.”
Beautifully put. As they have always appreciated across the Channel, rugby is not about the fortunate few in a corporate box in Paris. To thrive it has to be for the many, otherwise the floodlights in many English towns will soon prompt only wistful melancholy. No one is saying Cornish Pirates or Ampthill will win the Premiership any time soon but to cast them as irrelevances to English rugby is both crass and desperately shortsighted.
Why not go the other way and invest more in the regional heartlands and the undernourished clubs who not only help to sustain their own local communities but also supply the next generation of home-grown players and coaches? Once everyone’s face masks are finally off, take England’s players away to train at Coventry, Richmond and Doncaster and anywhere else with a beating rugby heart. Never mind a little magic dust rubbing off on the locals; Jones and England might just find the reverse is true.
Out of Africa
There is also a danger of the British & Irish Lions losing touch with what really matters. Almost everyone loves the Lions for their life-enhancing ethos: the sense of adventure, the improbable crusade to a distant land, the band of brothers camaraderie, the four home unions united in a common cause. On top of all that there is the midweek “dirt-tracker” narrative, the delirious travelling fans, the “will they, won’t they” Test selections, the educational visits to schools, townships and hospitals, the overarching one-for-all mentality. Strip away any of the above and there is a risk of it becoming just another business jaunt or, potentially this summer, a series of domestic day trips conducted entirely for cash. Dilute the mystique and romance of the Lions and there is a risk of permanently undermining the entire concept.
One to watch
With Wales, France and Scotland all still vying to win the 2021 Six Nations, the visit of les Bleus to Twickenham this Saturday will go a long way towards shaping the tournament. Are France really as good as they are starting to look? Do England have something better up their sleeves? If it is the former, a French grand slam is there for the taking. If the answer to the second question is no, a number of potential English Lions will need one hell of a game in Dublin next week to resuscitate their tour prospects.