Sometimes we need a bit of a reminder. The machinations of governing bodies, the cynical way the media allow them to get away with it, the frustrations of the unheard supporter. And yet from time to time, something happens to remind us of why we love it in the first place.
I had the joy and privilege of having tickets for the Rugby World Cup this weekend. In Brighton. For the South Africa v Japan game. A routine match, surely – one where the pleasure gained would be in seeing plucky underdogs giving it a go, and watching some truly great players of the game perform in front of me. It didn’t work out like that.
Many of you won’t be rugby fans, and this blog isn’t about other sports anyway, but the relevance to every single sports fan of whatever type is that it reminds us why we watch, why we got interested in the first place.
I love rugby, I always have. I was there for England’s ridiculous 55-35 win over France as they did everything they could to snatch the title from Ireland, and that was wonderful. But it was for a given value of wonder, and non-rugby fans wouldn’t have given two hoots. Where yesterday differed was that it was an example of where a sport, not one that is always in the wider public consciousness, grabbed the attention of many more.
ITV reported that they had 4.5 million viewers by the conclusion of the epic events yesterday evening, as word got around that something remarkable was happening. It’s an astounding number for a game that didn’t involve a home nation, and yet another illustration of the power of free to air television. Within the stadium, the fervour grew ever greater, as Japan time and again fought back from behind. The moment they crossed the try line in the fourth minute of overtime the place exploded, as 29,000 people (less a few South Africans) decided that at that moment they were all honorary Japanese.
Now, World Cup tickets in this tournament are outrageously expensive, and anecdotally a lot of rugby fans have decided not to bother in protest at the gouging that is going on – though since it’s pretty much sold out, the governing bodies won’t care. Equally, many of the grounds decided to increase the price of food and drink, to extract a little bit more from the matchgoing fan – although at the
Amex Brighton Community Stadium (sponsorship rules again) the service was so woefully slow – rugby fans wanted beer, who’d have thought? – that it probably cost them thousands in lost business anyway. Yet again, avarice amongst organisers is a prime motivation.
But sport has a delightful habit of doing the unexpected. Japan’s victory yesterday, along with Georgia’s earlier in the day, was duly celebrated by fans across the world, the huge upset(s) giving life to the tournament, and enormous pleasure beyond the game. And yet here’s the thing, Ireland beating England in the Cricket World Cup was just the same, one of those moments that even if it’s your own team you have to appreciate the wider importance of outsiders coming through and beating the elite. The difference is that World Rugby (as the IRB have rather pompously renamed themselves) will be utterly delighted, the game’s popularity will receive an additional boost, there will be kids in Tokyo and Tblisi throwing a rugby ball around this morning.
What rugby won’t do in response is to decide the likes of Japan and Georgia shouldn’t be in future tournaments, or that South Africa’s defeat is a disaster for the game where their current plight of potentially not qualifying for the quarter finals needs to be prevented from happening again. The international body managing rugby is a mile away from being a force for unmitigated good in the game, they receive (rightly) lots of criticism for failing to support the growth of the game outside its heartlands adequately, and the big nations are pretty grasping too. But they also know that to expand the game you need moments like yesterday. Indeed, Japan are the next hosts of the World Cup in 2019, a scenario it’s impossible to imagine cricket contemplating.
Yesterday was amazing. When Japan crossed the try line having eschewed the chance to take the draw with a kick at goal in favour of going for the win, that deep emotion you can feel from wonderful sporting theatre went through my whole body. There’s not a thing that can beat it, despite the attempts by those in power to take it away from us.
The sheer joy (and disbelief) on the faces of Japanese supporters outside the ground is a memory that will stay with me. The stories of such things as Springbok fans forming a guard of honour for their Japanese counterparts at the ticket barriers at Victoria station remind us all that we, those who care, are what make the sport special, for without us, there is no game.
I had to re-watch the highlights this morning to check it really happened. It did. And it was absolutely bloody marvellous. Cricket considers this a bad thing. Think about that.