- New captain Jamie George will need support from the stands to launch new era
- Partly at fault is England’s song choice – with neither anthem or ‘Swing Low’ right
- PLUS: France need to deploy talismanic captain Antoine Dupont when possible
England are preparing to face Wales, full of intent to turn Twickenham into a fortress again, but the place might just be too comfortable, commercial and privileged to fill visitors with trepidation.
Jamie George, the new national captain, is on a mission to re-establish strong bonds with the English rugby public and it is a worthy objective. Steve Borthwick’s team require some outside help while they seek to launch a new era and end their recent cycle of failure in the Six Nations. What they really need is significant home advantage on their side, but that could be unattainable.
Can Twickenham become a feared destination again? Only due to feats on the field. As a sporting venue, it has size, power and wealth – so much wealth – but not hostility and fervour. Visiting players often talk about the stadium in an awe-struck tone, but that is down to the sheer scale of it – and traditional English home rule.
But now, England need noise. Back in 2015, it was literally rocking on Super Saturday, as Stuart Lancaster’s side ran riot against France. The stands were shaking from the celebrations. There have been a few other occasions like that, but not enough of them.
It is smart and welcoming these days. People pay handsomely for a grand day out. Drink pints, glug champagne, embrace the commercial over-load, then – on the whole – sit back and wait to be entertained. But it can’t be that way if fortress status is to be reclaimed. The home team need a ‘16th man’ impact from the stands, which is a rarity.
Jamie George (centre) will hope that his England side can draw inspiration from a home crowd
Twickenham is the home of English rugby but at times looks staid in comparison to other national grounds
England need atmosphere to draw upon both in good times – and in bad – playing at home
Twickenham is so far removed from the match-day atmosphere in Cardiff. It is more open and polite. Murrayfield is full of partisan passion and antipathy towards hated neighbours. The Aviva Stadium provides steep stands and high volume in support of a dominant Irish team, even though it’s not nearly big enough.
In Paris, the Stade de France is not in use this year due to Olympics preparation, but there they have cleverly used light shows, flags and pyrotechnics to create special, raucous Gallic energy – and the locals are not afraid to noisily berate the opposition, the officials or even their own side. Game day in Rome is friendly but boisterous – and they have the best anthem going for them.
It may be tantamount to treason to say this but God Save the King does not stir the blood and neither does Swing Low. Sorry, it is an awful dirge and – as has long since become apparent – an inappropriate choice of rugby song. England fans really need something new as their go-to option.
The RFU have brought in DJs and some of the pre-match tunes can be rousing – and the union are trying to implement other new ideas to re-engage with the public. But England could do with a thunderous fitting anthem and a regular call to arms. Ireland adopted ‘Zombie’ at the World Cup and the mass renditions became a viral sensation.
There has to be a shift in mood at London’s oval-ball cathedral. It is an iconic home of the sport, but that doesn’t give a tiring home team an extra one per cent of spirit, or fill visitors with apprehension. They don’t create the sort of cacophony which made Thomond Park a place where Munster were invincible for so long, or which make the likes of Ellis Park in Johannesburg a daunting destination for outsiders, full of palpable menace.
That is what Borthwick’s men need. They need seething, ferocious backing when they are in the eye of a storm – and a carnival when they cut loose.
In cricket, England savour playing in a Brummie bear-pit at Edgbaston and have more success there than at genteel Lord’s, where visitors can be inspired by the grandeur and history. Twickenham is more like Lord’s. It is more like Wimbledon tennis. Turn up and enjoy the production, like a trip to the theatre.
The team have to provide something to get behind, but all the logos, big-screen selfies and gallons of fizz, the overt commercialism, comfy seats and car-park picnics don’t create a fortress. It is all shiny and impressive, but it is time for England and their followers to make it more forbidding.
The side are stymied somewhat by a pedestrian national anthem and the Twickenham faithful need a new rousing song to sing
Last week’s opponents Italy have one of the best anthems and a Stadio Olimpico buzz to match
George said that the Red Rose squad, ahead of their Six Nations opener in Italy, watched footage of crowd celebrations during the World Cup and there was real fervour during the first pool fixture against Argentina, when England’s 14 men claimed a backs-to-the-wall win. But the stark, awkward truth is that that was a different demographic. That’s away from Twickenham. Tickets for the global showpiece are sold in a more meritocratic way, albeit an expensive one. A wider range of supporters are able to attend, from various backgrounds and geographical locations.
At home, it is locked up in established priority access for debenture holders and club committee types, to a disproportionate extent. There’s a lot of privilege and, how to put it… seniority. So those who are willing to pay handsomely for a seat fill the RFU bank account and fund the game at large, but it means it can be very reserved and subdued.
Here’s hoping that those who are lucky enough to be there on Saturday find their voices. Home advantage has to mean more than just familiar surroundings and a shorter commute.
McCarthy’s stand-out night in Marseille
He had already won five Test caps, but last Friday night, Joe McCarthy sixth’s appearance for Ireland was the one which announced his emergence as a phenomenal prospect, in front of the wider rugby world.
The 22-year-old Manhattan-born Leinster lock was magnificent in the victory over France in Marseille. Poor James Ryan – who has been Irish captain and a stalwart for so many years – must have sat on the bench and seen the writing on the wall. On this evidence, McCarthy should become a fixture in that pedigree Ireland pack and a long-term asset to his country – and to the Lions in 2025. Write his name down for that tour now. He not only went toe-to-toe with the mighty French forwards, he buried them.
McCarthy was aggressive, imposing and horrible for the hosts. He looks to be a seriously tough customer; an intimidating threat to the opposition and a rallying point for his own team, with his ruck work and his hard edges in contact, in defence and attack. In the highest company, he stood tall and stood out. What a player.
Joe McCarthy was one to watch against France and looks to become a fixture for Ireland
The lettering used for France’s names on their shirts (in blue, right) was so small as to be beside the point
Squint or you’ll miss it
There were far more important things to focus on over the weekend, but at times it did feel quite hard to focus on the players’ names on their shirts. Having taken the decision to make their stars more identifiable to the casual viewer, during this time of the year when European rugby is in its shop-window phase, some of the embroidery left a lot to be desired.
Come on, these are big men – use the available space across their upper-back area. In certain cases, the lettering was barely visible, which defeats the object entirely. The French were the worst culprits in this regard. Let’s hope they have increased the font size by the time they run out at Murrayfield on Saturday.
Make it clear who they are. Promote and sell the sport. And when it comes to France, maybe if they know they are more identifiable next time, they won’t play so badly again!
Shake-up in the second tier
There were incredible scenes in Mons on Saturday night after Belgium hung on to beat Portugal – who were so impressive during the recent World Cup – 10-6 in the Rugby Europe Championship.
It was a seismic shock which gave another glimpse of wider potential in the second tier, if there was proper support and even a faint flicker of hope that a shot at the Six Nations was possible one day.
Belgium went into the match 29th in the World Rugby rankings while their opponents were 13th; whereas now the victors have risen to 26th and ‘Os Lobos’ are down to 16th.
On Sunday, another telling result came in Dessau as Germany led Georgia for much of the first half and pushed the perennial tournament winners all the way before succumbing to a gallant 28-17 defeat. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts for Richard Cockerill in charge of Georgia, but any German potential should be seized on by the sport’s authorities as something to nurture and fund.
The last word…
Antoine Dupont was as imperious as ever in the colours of Toulouse on Saturday, as he inspired their rout of Top 14 rivals Bayonne. The scrum-half’s latest command performance came the day after France had been subdued and easily beaten by Ireland in Marseille – which begs the question; why didn’t he play in that Six Nations opener?
Antoine Dupont is badly missed but Toulouse could soak up his talents before his Olympic Sevens appointment this summer
Granted, his country need to learn to cope without him in 15-a-side rugby, but if he was available, he surely should have been involved. The Gallic maestro, talisman, poster-boy and recent captain has been seconded to the national Sevens team ahead of the Olympics in Paris, which left poor Maxime Lucu to feel the heat on Friday night, as he tried in vain to replace Superman. It isn’t possible.
As he showed again with Toulouse, Dupont is barely human. He is a freakish, generational talent. His whole career is a highlights show. No doubt, there will be some fascinating episodes in Sevens, but to see him playing for his club the day after France were dismantled was jarring to say the least. He should be picked as a one-off, any time he is in the country, this month and next.
Dupont is more than capable of switching back into 15-a-side mode and excelling, in a heart-beat. The man can do anything he pleases.