Major sporting events can do strange things to people. Days blur into weeks and weeks into months and before you know it you are cocooned in a bubble outside of which almost everything else takes on a strangely abstract meaning
Other news and sports pale in comparison, household bills build up on the hallway floor and the lawn turns to jungle.
For the players and management of the 20 teams at the heart of this Rugby World Cup there are few enough release valves. Not for them a spot of gardening or a few nights out with a full-bodied claret or a local IPA. Nor is there the option of flitting over and back across the Irish Sea as many of the Irish journalists working at this tournament are doing.
For England, that bubble is just magnified.
England’s Dan Cole spoke about the dangers of this bubble as far back as the start of July in the days after Stuart Lancaster’s squad had first gathered. The Leicester Tigers prop was part of Martin Johnson’s squad four years ago in New Zealand so he was someone worth listening to when it came to his opinion on the unique stresses of spending so many months in camp.
“The mental side is as hard as the physical side because it is a home World Cup,” Cole told BBC Sport ahead of a pre-season training camp in Denver. “There will be lots of attention every day. Taking the squad out of the World Cup bubble will help get the bonds between the lads, because the teamwork and camaraderie will probably be what gets you through to the latter stages of the World Cup.”
Bubbles can be fine and dandy, of course, but it doesn’t take much to burst them. We’ve seen that more than once this week here in England, with the hosts and the French assuming the roles of the aggrieved, though there has even been a notable contribution from an Ireland camp in which so much seems hunky dory.
Matt Williams was the ‘perp’ on this occasion. We don’t have access to TV3 in the UK, but it seemed that the former Leinster and Scotland coach was perfectly within his rights to suggest that maybe Jared Payne wasn’t at his best against Romania last Sunday and if he thought that someone else merited a go at first centre, then that was his right and duty as a pundit.
Darren Cave saw it differently. “It can be frustrating when guys just throw out opinions which aren’t based on what actually happened in the match,” said Payne’s Ulster colleague.
“Suddenly, it’s the opinion of guys who have had a couple of beers and watched the game. I would be pretty annoyed.” Why so, though?
There is a growing trend in sports to say that anything stated outside of the team environment is mere “external white noise”, as England assistant coach Mike Catt put it this week. That’s fine. Siege mentalities can help and there’s no doubt that the media here is preparing for a protracted assault on the House of Lancaster if England lose to Australia this weekend.
It doesn’t bear thinking what the frenzy will be like for Lancaster and his charges if England get bumped from their own tournament before the knock-out stages, but what was remarkable this week was the complete lack of understanding displayed by another of his assistants, Andy Farrell, as to the role the media plays.
Farrell was responding to Will Carling’s suggestion that the players were being treated like schoolboys in a ‘classroom-orientated environment’ after the loss to Wales when he said: “It is disappointing. We need everyone behind us this week — the media, the whole of the nation, the crowd. We need to batten down the hatches together. Let’s go for it’.”
It was a comment that brought to mind one of the many superb scenes in the film Full Metal Jacket, when a Marine colonel admonishes Private Joker for wearing a CND peace symbol on his helmet and urges him to get with the programme. “Why don’t you jump on the team and come on in for the big win?” he demands.
Incredible though it seems, there remains a considerable batch of people involved in world-class professional sport who still don’t understand the media’s role. It is 42 years since Jerome Holtzman wrote the classic ‘No Cheering in the Press Box’, and people like Farrell could do with being shown the cover if nothing else.
Then again, so could some of the press themselves.
There is a reason why journalists are reminded not to show outward signs of emotion before virtually every major sporting event in the US, why the GAA informs media that the wearing of county colours is frowned upon in the Croke Park press box, and why Sports Illustrated fired a freelance Nascar writer in 2011 for clapping at the Daytona 500.
It’s not always an unwritten rule that is followed to the letter.
Cold will be the heart that doesn’t skip a silent beat when Ireland take on Italy on Sunday, or France a week later, but you wonder what the folks at Sports Illustrated would make of the sight of the BBC’s Jonathan Davies and others jumping for delirious joy in Twickenham’s media area after Wales defeated England.
Is it any wonder Andy Farrell is confused?
“Taking the Tube in London is a novelty for the first week,” the brother-in-law told us three years ago when he was working at the 2012 London Olympics. “After that it’s just a grind.”
He was absolutely right, but this is still a city that provides an endless supply of delights and the view from Primrose Hill is up there with the best.
Located on the northern side of Regent’s Park, the summit offers a panoramic snapshot of Central London and all its landmarks.
It sits surrounded by a network of affluent areas, such as St John’s Wood, Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park, as well as the grittier Camden Town, so it was instructive to flit around the hill and the park last Saturday morning.
England may have been facing Wales in the biggest game of the Rugby World Cup to date that evening, but the fields of Regent’s Park were swarming with hundreds if not thousands of children playing football, the vast majority of them decked out in the colours of their local area’s underage club rather than those of the Premier League.
A run around the area confirmed yet again just how dominant football is.
There was the odd rugby pitch, but the two spotted went unused. Though hardly the most scientific of findings, it chimed with everything people living in the city have told us in the past two weeks and it put into perspective the relative importance of tomorrow’s meeting between England and Australia.
Elimination would undoubtedly be a blow to the RFU’s hopes of injecting more widespread interest in the game’s grassroots, but it is impossible to see how rugby will ever be anything more than a distant second, third or fourth to the all-conquering Beautiful Game.
Email: Brendan.obrien@ examiner.ie Twitter: @Rackob
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