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

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby World Cup -

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,

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