“We might not be the greatest team in the world. But at least we turn up.”
The quote has been carved into rugby folklore ever since it was first uttered by England captain John Pullin in 1973. Ireland, mired in the Northern Ireland Troubles at the time, was depicted as a morass of mines and mayhem in much of the global media.
Both Scotland and Wales had refused to travel to Dublin the previous year but England, to their eternal credit, braved that particular storm.
The quote is significant for another reason, however. It suggests a modest England team, cognizant of their place in the world and of their on-field foe’s perspective. However, England ultimately lost that day, 18-9. They were a respectful England, happy to make the trip to Ireland and, in defeat, willingly admit that they simply weren’t up to their opposition’s standard.
Such candour still resonates today, and perhaps even made them likeable at the time. But it also made them beatable.
Exactly 30 years later, a very different England took to the field at Lansdowne Road. Stacked with world class players all over the pitch, they exhumed a confidence that, in truth, went beyond self-assurance.
They were arrogant. They were cocky. And they were the best rugby team in the world. Martin Johnson’s now infamous decision to not move his team before the anthems is not something Pullin would have ever considered three decades previously.
Johnson’s decision was emblematic of the team’s assumption that they were the best team in the world and weren’t to be moved around for anyone. Not even, it would seem, the President of Ireland. Many will gripe at his unsportsmanlike behaviour, even label Johnson a disgrace, but it is when England exhume hubris to this extent that they are typically at their best.
They swagger into an arena and take no orders from anyone. They believe they are the best team in the world, and invariably they back it up. England would go on to win that day, and win handsomely. Their 42-6 victory even earned them a grand slam.
Their cockiness will have ruffled the feathers of many, but the fact remains that a cocky England, with swashbuckling swagger and arrogance to boot, are an England at their best. And cockiness, it would appear, is on the up in the English camp.
Eddie Jones is a smart man, and an excellent rugby coach. Thus, his bizarre post-match comments after the Italy match aren’t due to a lack of understanding of the game. They are due to arrogance. They are due to a belief that Italy had no right not to play into England’s hands. A belief that Italy’s role was to succumb to England and allow their ‘Sweet Chariot’ to simply roll straight through them.
In Dylan Hartley, he has a captain that is a walking embodiment of such crassness and bullishness. And it is the attitudes of these two men in tandem that make England tick so ruthlessly. Should they notch up a win against Scotland next weekend, they will tie with the All Blacks’ record of 18 consecutive tier one test wins. England’s success hasn’t spawned such arrogance, however. Rather that arrogance has spawned their success.
Stuart Lancaster too has proved himself an excellent coach. Leinster’s transformation this season has been far too dramatic to not be connected with his presence. He is reserved, modest and respectful, adjectives one would struggle to assign to England’s current head coach but are easily found in Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt.
Clearly, such traits match the Irish psyche and coax it to higher levels of performance. As head coach of England, however, Lancaster oversaw a humiliating group stage exit in their home World Cup.
England believe themselves to be the best team in world rugby. Apparent dips in performance are explained away simply as transition periods from one apogee to another. They now have a head coach and captain that exhibit such a creed for the world to see.
They are disrespectful, they are arrogant and even borderline delusional at times. And English rugby appears all the stronger for it.
Colm Egan, Pundit Arena