Superior, pompous and a sense of entitlement – yes, it is always a great feeling beating the Poms
I am being wheeled out again to say how sweet victory would be. Well, I won’t lie. It would be
What does it mean to beat England? Is it the scalp Australian sportsmen and women prize above all others? Was that 1991 World Cup final victory all the sweeter because it was against England at Twickenham? Why do the rest of the world love to beat the English?
These are questions I get asked a lot, probably because I have a reputation as a bit of a Pommiebasher and people expect me to say inflammatory things, especially about England. I have earned that reputation, though. It has got to the point where I have become a bit of a pantomime villain.
A lot of the time I play up to it, so if someone asks me a straight question I will say what I think, even if I know they are fishing for a sound bite. I am outspoken on lots of subjects, but comments about the old enemy tend to get blown out of all proportion. Or land me in trouble. That sandwich board ‘walk of shame’ down Oxford Street after England’s World Cup win in 2003 is a good example.
People need to realise that I have become more passionate about the game as I have got older. I was mainly into rugby league in my youth. These days I speak out in frustration at what I see happening to the game I have grown to love. I can’t help it. It is the same with Will Carling. He got in trouble this week for having a go at England, but he is passionate, like me. We may be ex-players but we love the game. How boring would it be if we all just shut up?
Anyway, the relationship with the English could get pretty aggressive back in the day. I remember before the 1991 final some British journalists went to my home town of Queanbeyan in New South Wales and started snooping around, looking for ex-girlfriends, upsetting my mum. And a few times at Twickenham, with the crowd so close you can hear every word they say, the sledging was pretty personal. Sometimes journalists just made stuff up. That old story about me saying I became rugby’s first millionaire five years before Carling? The truth is I was overheard by a journalist joking at a function and he decided to report it as fact. It made for a good story.
Or the comment I made about England playing boring 10-man rugby before the 1991 final, which supposedly led England to change their tactics for the final. Nonsense. Teams do not change their tactics based on off-the-cuff comments.
With Australia facing off against England tonight in a clash which could spell the end of England’s World Cup hopes, naturally I am being wheeled out again to say how sweet it would be to beat the Poms. Well, I will not lie. It would be sweet! Of course it would. Who am I kidding? The rivalry between England and Australia – whether in cricket, rugby league, union, you name it – is huge and steeped in tradition, going on for centuries.
It certainly made an impression on me growing up. I can remember the old GB rugby league teams coming out to tour. I remember the Ashes series of my youth, the sides of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Later on the England teams with Ian Botham and David Gower. Some great characters. Beating the English was a huge source of national pride. A unique rivalry. Some might think it is deep-rooted
England have the most resources, the fan base. They should win. Only mostly they don’t
in the psyche of Australians; the young independent country trying to get one over on the motherland.
There is all the banter about the convicts and the SDs [shackle draggers – a term my mate Brian Moore likes to employ]. I don’t think it is so much that. At least it isn’t for me. My dad was from Italy and that historic relationship with England did not mean anything to him. For me I think it is more basic, to do with cultural differences. I will get myself in trouble again here but, what the hell, let’s get some stereotypes going. Whether you intend to project it or not, there is an air of superiority about England when it comes to sport. A sense of entitlement. That attitude of “We gave the world this or this sport – we are its true guardians”. The English also have a tendency to gloat in victory. Maybe it is just the media. England have the most resources, the largest pool of players, the biggest fan base. They should win. Only mostly they don’t. You build them up like there is no tomorrow. It is the same with football. All that money and hype.
And when England do get a big win, why can’t you just be a bit more gracious? Like when you beat the All Blacks in 2012, when they were at the end of a long tour, suddenly you are the best in the world. It is the same with the Ashes. We just think, “Right, enjoy it while it lasts,” and then win 5-0 in the next series.
So yes, it is special beating England. Is it the most satisfying scalp? I am not sure. Beating the All Blacks was special because you knew you were facing the best in the world. I played them 29 times in my career and only won eight of them and they are very special memories indeed. South Africa, you always knew you were in for a big physical challenge, so a win against them was a test of nerve.
But yes, England is different. Of course, stoking the flames, the banter beforehand, the build-up in the press, the sledging on the field, is all part of the game. You guys think we are brash and unreconstructed. We think you are superior and pompous in your lilywhite shirts.
There is a deep underlying respect, though. Some of my best memories are of wins over England, and I have become firm friends with many I competed against. My first northernhemisphere tour was the Grand Slam tour of 1984. The match against England was Rory Underwood’s first international cap. We won but I didn’t see much of the ball. And typical of many England games at the time, Rory didn’t see much of the ball either!
The camaraderie, the sledging, has maybe changed a bit in the professional age. It is all very intense now. Test matches take place at night and the players probably go back to their hotels for an ice bath rather than to the bar with their opponents. But hopefully we will never lose that special relationship; the friendly banter, the respect.
Ultimately, though, all this stoking of the flames, it is all noise. I saw Clive Woodward come out this week and say Australia would panic under the pressure. We can all say what we like off the field. It makes little difference. It will be two teams putting their bodies on the line at Twickenham tonight. I just hope the best team win. Just as long as it’s Australia.