Reaction Weekend

Don’t hate the player, hate the game: why liking the opposition is part of the sport

In a team sport, one can have heroes on the other side too. Partisanship must go hand-in-hand with appreciation

BY Allan Massie   /  20 February 2021

I had intended to start this column with praise for how top-level sport has responded to the absence of crowds. However, I now see that Eddie Jones has blamed England’s “sub-standard” start to the Six Nations on the empty stadium, which has apparently kept the players’ “arousal level” low. He quotes some research on a German football club which suggests that its “arousal level” has been 20 per cent below par.

Nevertheless, the Scotland team at Twickenham seemed to have got its “arousal level” pretty high. Indeed the same may be said of the young Italian side last week – despite the defensive errors which let England score some too easy tries. Moreover, at Murrayfield last Saturday – soon after the final whistle at Twickenham – Scotland and Wales gave us a match of high intensity and skill. It was a game that will stay in the memory long after many internationals played before a full house of fans have slipped into oblivion. Though Sunday’s Ireland-France game in Dublin wasn’t as good or exciting as the Murrayfield match, I doubt one could reasonably complain about the “arousal level” there either. So perhaps Mr Jones’s preparation of his team is more to blame than the absence of a crowd for “sub-standard performances”.

Fifty years ago, not quite to the day, there was a classic Scotland-Wales match at Murrayfield, won 19-18 by Wales thanks to John Taylor’s conversion of an injury-time try by Gerald Davies on the right wing. That was a wonderful Welsh team, packed with most of the brightest stars of the Lions side that would defeat the All Blacks a few months later. The Scotland side, captained by Peter Brown, wasn’t bad either; it went on to win at Twickenham. But the Welsh match – which also featured a try by Barry John ghosting through a bamboozled defence – was one of these rare games which left thousands of supporters of the beaten side wiping their tears away and saying, “I don’t really mind losing a match of that quality”.


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