November 1, 2019

Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, framed tomorrow’s World Cup final in a political context earlier this week. Looking forward to the clash with the giant South Africa side he said:

“I think it’s great. You give the country something to cheer about… with Brexit at the moment they probably need something to cheer about. It’s a job of the team to make the country happy.”

He was speaking before the Commons decided to take the plunge and vote for a general election, but what he said raises an intriguing question: could an England victory have any impact on the politics of the moment? Will Boris Johnson enjoy a World Cup bounce if the team arrives back in London on Monday bearing the Webb-Ellis trophy aloft?

Leaving aside the impossibility of subjecting these questions to definitive psephological analysis (the pollster’s tools are simply too blunt an instrument to capture something as fleeting and ephemeral as how sporting success or failure might impact the political mood) we have to fall back on anecdotal evidence.

For sport to exert any political pull, context is all: when England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 it was the mid-point of Tony Blair’s second administration, so if there was an effect it didn’t matter much.

Sometimes England’s victory in the football world cup in 1966 is cited as evidence that sport can influence politics: it is said Harold Wilson enjoyed a boost from the team’s success in that year’s general election. Nice theory, except that the election took place months before the tournament.

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A more persuasive example came four years later in 1970 when some of the politicians, at least, felt football really did affect the outcome of that general election.

It was  Sunday 14 June and England were playing West Germany in the quarter-finals. With 20 minutes to go they were 2-0 up, then disaster struck: England goalie Peter Bonetti, a replacement for Gordon Banks who was out with a stomach bug, committed a series of blunders and the Germans won 3-2. Four days later, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party went down to an unexpected defeat at the hands of Ted Heath.

Subsequently, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins, among others, claimed they had detected a political fallout from the football result; there was a palpable glumness among the voters, they later recalled, who took out their discontent on the government.

Is it true? It seems logical that the national mood is at least to some extent affected by sport. The 2012 London Olympics, for instance, did create a real, if temporary, sense of public buoyancy.

But does rugby have the same impact? Does it have the same ability to change the political weather? Football is, we are constantly told, “the national game” and, in terms of spectator numbers, that is clearly true.

But rugby has a perfect right to consider itself the runner-up in those stakes. The figures are compelling. Including everyone from senior professionals to schoolboy and schoolgirl players, it is estimated there are more than two million people who currently play rugby in England — more than twice as many as cricket.

The emphasis there should be on the word ‘play’. Rugby has always been a participatory sport: going back a generation to before the professional era, attendances at rugby matches, even at the biggest clubs such as Leicester, would regularly be in the low hundreds — but there were still tens of thousands of people playing the game. Things are different now: the opening match in this season’s top tier competition, the Rugby Premiership, which featured Bristol against local rivals Bath, drew a crowd of nearly 27,000.

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The professional era has changed the game as a spectacle, beyond all recognition. What the Premiership now offers is a fast-moving and skilful athletic contest a world away from the often static mud-bound struggles of yesteryear. What’s more, the game these days is cleverly marketed and expertly presented on TV. The premiership is in the hands of BT Sport and they’ve shown themselves to be excellent partners; the average weekend viewing figures for rugby on BT is in excess of 800,000 and England’s success at this World Cup is likely to give that a further boost.

England’s match against the All Blacks last weekend recorded an audience of 10 million — at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning, mark you — which suggests there’s a very big market for the game out there and tomorrow’s final will draw a massive last audience. An England victory will undoubtedly supercharge the game’s popularity, so it’s reasonable to expect the growth to continue.

The charge is often thrown at rugby that it is an elitist sport and therefore one that cannot move the country as football does. The hoariest of clichés is that of Barbour-jacketed rich men doling out champagne and smoked salmon to their posh mates from the tailgate of their Range Rovers in the Twickenham car park on match day in the Six Nations.

Such people do exist, but they’re far from typical — and anyway, are they so different from the prawn sandwich munchers in the VIP boxes at football grounds? But the everyday reality of rugby is very different. Anyone who thinks rugby is a sport for toffs should make a visit to a ground like Kingsholm, home of Gloucester: sometimes nicknamed ‘Castle Grim’, the oldest stand at the ground, ‘The Shed’, is about as earthy as it gets. Anyone attending match day there will be quickly disabused of any notion that rugby is elitist. Furthermore, some of the rising stars of the sport  — men like the outstanding prop forward Kyle Sinckler — give the lie to the ‘toff’ charge.

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Sinckler is a formidable player but his life story is an inspiring tale of how rugby can change individual lives. Raised by his mum on a tough council estate in Tooting, south London, Sinckler was, by all accounts, an aggressive boy. But a friend’s suggestion that he should try rugby led to him signing on as a schoolboy player with Battersea Ironsides, a club founded by soldiers from the Royal Tank Regiment during the Second World War. Suddenly that natural aggression found its proper outlet and, combined with a natural athletic talent, he rose rapidly through the ranks and was capped for England under-16s.

Two weeks ago, as Sinckler crashed over for a try under the posts against the Aussies, that promise was fulfilled and it’s not unreasonable to think his achievements will have ignited ambition in other young hearts. And Sinckler is far from alone: ex-public schoolboys are still probably over-represented in the ranks of professional rugby players but that is changing.

For one thing, the rewards on offer for professional players these days are tempting: the average salary for a player in the  English Premiership is now more than £200,000 and for star players much higher than that. Charles Piutau, formerly of Auckland, New Zealand, became rugby’s first “million pound man” when he signed for Bristol last year.

One of the  factors that previously prevented rugby competing for talent outside the ranks of the already comfortably off was that you couldn’t make a decent living at it. That is no longer so. Admittedly rugby players, even the best of them, earn a lot less than the highest paid footballers but by most people’s standards they still look pretty good.

Given all that, the outlook for English rugby is rosy. Old prejudices about rugby being an exclusively middle-class sport are withering away under the impact of professionalism and the wider audience the sport is now reaching.

If England do lift the trophy this Saturday — and the omens are good — rugby will enjoy a moment in the spotlight which will attract more people — players and spectators — into the rugby family. A victory parade through London is being mooted, probably next Tuesday; there will be a welcome lifting of the national mood and one not exclusively confined to the ranks of old, white men (though we, too, will be among those celebrating).

As for Boris, I can’t see him passing up this opportunity: tea and photo-opportunity at No 10, Mr Sinckler?

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