I’m not good with mornings at the best of times. They make me ridiculously grumpy, those stealers of sleep, those awful accomplices of alarm clocks! So you can no doubt imagine exactly how well how I’ve been coping with the World Cup so far!
I know, of course, that I don’t really have the right to be in too much high dudgeon over the competition’s inhuman kick off times for us Europe-based folk, given that New Zealand – a country fairly well-known for having a passing interest in rugby – hasn’t hosted a World Cup since the initial tournament way back in 1987. And I know that I shouldn’t really be making too much of a fuss about having to get out of my bed just that wee bit earlier than normal when we’re still basking in the warm and sunny afterglow of a fine European summer. Not while I can see Kiwis turning up at the stadium for kick off looking as wild, woolly and windswept as any decent human beings have a right to. But then again, you know how crotchety people can get when they haven’t had enough shut-eye, so you’ll just have to forgive me for being a curmudgeonly old sod.
Still, I was certainly prepared to brave the vagaries of the time zone this weekend in order to enjoy a double helping of early morning oval ball action, which turned out to be not only a rugby fiesta, but also a cultural awakening the like of which most of us never have the pleasure of experiencing.
7am on Saturday was the prescribed time for the England v Romania Pool B match to get underway and all had been taken in hand to ensure the best possible conditions in which to watch Martin Johnson’s men. See, I live in southwest France, the heart of the country’s infamous rugby belt, and I usually like nothing better than shouting at the telly together with a load of Frenchmen who are positively roaring on red wine. But the chance to watch England do battle with The Mighty Oaks in Dunedin seemed to have what might euphemistically be called ‘limited appeal’ to fans of Les Bleus, so it was down to Plan B. And what a Plan B it was!
With two English friends of ours ensconced in their summer house nearby and suffering a serious telly malfunction, a plot was hatched for them to come round, with the price of admission nothing more than freshly-imported bacon sandwiches. Cheap at twice the price, surely! Apart from the fact that they cocked the time up and arrived a full hour early (sleep stealers!) a fine old time was had. The brown sauce flowed almost as freely as the English tries in the 67-3 victory and we couldn’t help but feel that our French friends must have had a premonition about the size of the English victory and simply couldn’t bear to see the old enemy racking up a cricket score so early on a Saturday morning!
Having done the English thing to the max (forgot to mention the steaming buckets of milky coffee rather than the wee little espressos that are usually dished up here) it was then straight in the car and off across country at something only slightly less than breakneck speed so as not to miss what people over here were talking up as the weekend’s ‘big ’un’, France v New Zealand.
I’d put up a spirited defence for England’s match being the day’s prime attraction, but had to admit that the numbers were against me when I got to my friend Fred’s house. It was wall-to-wall red, white and blue as France started off in lively fashion and the assembled throng responded in kind. The All Blacks’ ability to step it up a gear almost at will and put some clear daylight between themselves and whoever happens to be the opposition didn’t seem to meet much resistance, either on the pitch or in the living room, as attention started to stray once it became clear that France had as much chance of winning the game as I had of getting a rousing chorus of ‘God Save The Queen’ going. But as the local delicacies of sausage and tripe started doing the rounds (sadly no veal’s head, frogs’ legs or snails this time) all the disappointment at the prospect of France losing simply melted away as that enviable French custom of stuffing yourself stupid at inappropriate times took a vice-like hold.
“It’s all for the best,” said Fred once the final whistle had been blown and the French had lost and been left to focus on a second-place Pool finish and a likely quarter-final meeting with England. “This way we get to beat you in the knockout stage and then the All Blacks in the final!” I didn’t dare tell him that the drink was clearly not just talking, but spouting absolute nonsense!
As many of you will doubtless know and as this particular morning proves, rugby is always about so much more than rugby. With two games and a bellyload of bacon and tripe under my belt – and all before midday – I simply have to say – and with as much sincerity as such a tired old cliché merits – ‘Rugby’s the winner!’