England’s ‘big three’ teams at last crack code for success
National sides in rugby, cricket and football have shown it is possible to cast aside fear and deliver fans from emotional hell
That galloping sound is England teams finally catching up in the big three sports. Catching up with Olympic gold medallists, world champion boxers and all the other folk who have filled the void left by the men’s main national sides.
Void: too strong a word? No. English sport’s awkward truth is that the big three lag far behind the disciplines that have blessed us with Dina Asher-smith, Lewis Hamilton and Jessica Ennis-hill. Television viewing figures affirm that England teams are the largest prism for watching sport.
England’s women drew 11.7million this summer for their semi-final against the United States and the men’s team’s semi with Croatia in Russia last year peaked at 26.5 million.
In five tide-changing months in 2019, England could end up winning both the cricket and rugby World Cups. So what, you might think.
The reason for setting the country’s face to stunned is that football, cricket and rugby have found World Cups hard going since 1950 – the year England’s footballers ascended to the global stage. In all those areas England have been near-miss artists or downright flops for most of their history.
The cricket World Cup started in 1975 but it took until 2019 for England to win it. The football team won theirs in 1966 but have reached one final since 1950. In rugby, England are the only northern hemisphere winners since the tournament started in 1987, but nobody could call them top dogs in the competition.
Here is another thread. Every England World Cup win has been an emotional hell – almost comically stressful. The 1966 win required extra time and a refereeing controversy that burns to this day. England’s cricket World Cup victory at Lord’s in July went down to the last ball of a superover, at the end of a final hour so stressful that many found it unendurable.
Nobody here in Tokyo needs reminding how England’s 2003 rugby team won their World Cup, on a filthy night, after Australia had brought the game level at 14-14 with a late score. Jonny Wilkinson’s dropped goal was the catharsis for a great team who, Lawrence Dallaglio says, struggled through the competition and “just about got over the line”.
In the big women’s sports, England were world champions in rugby in 1994 and 2014. In cricket 1973, 1993, 2009 and 2017, which was no walk in the park either (India needed 33 from 39 balls with five wickets left – but then in ran Anya Shrubsole). But the men’s picture is far more turbulent, baffling and ultimately underwhelming.
This has been a harvest year for sport. Tiger Woods winning the Masters, Liverpool beating Barcelona 4-0 from a 3-0 first-leg deficit and then seizing the Champions League, Shane Lowry winning the island of Ireland’s first Open Championship since 1951, the rise of Jofra Archer, Ben Stokes’s redemption act at Lord’s and his Ashes miracle at Headingley: these are only the most newsworthy recollections from a year when sport anchored us (a bit) against political mayhem.
Sadly, the really big one got away. England could not win the Nations League in Portugal. Yet, here again, the country feels far more bonded to Gareth Southgate’s squad since they reached a 2018 World Cup semi-final, and there are reasons to be hopeful for them in next summer’s European Championship.
At the very least, England’s cricket and rugby teams have taken inspiration from Southgate’s work in cracking the code of what it means to play for your country – and why it should not induce fatalism and fear.
Interestingly, there is plenty of cross-pollination going on between the three operations. Eoin Morgan, the England limited-overs captain, has met Eddie Jones’s team; similarly Morgan’s World Cup squad drew on many outside influences. Much of the talk between them has been fascinating and fruitful. Somebody should write a book about it.
If one theme stands out, it could be handling “pressure” – a misunderstood concept in the bad old days when people equated it to a kind of self-pity. The real “pressure” is execution stress, performance anxiety. What they have learnt is that it can be dealt with, broken down, defused, from England’s cricketers in the super-over to this rugby team facing the All Blacks when, from the haka onwards, they applied a stunning collective rigour,