x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Beauty and the beast on course for civil war

These are interesting times in English Rugby with the brilliant and flamboyant Chris Ashton at odds with Martin Johnson, the pragmatic manager.

The last time an England rugby union player scored four tries in a championship match was 1914, a year synonymous with the bloody tragedy of the First World War.

It was a different historical conflagration, however, which sprang to mind when the sublime Chris Ashton celebrated his fourth try against Italy in the Six Nations on Saturday: the English Civil War. Roundheads versus Cavaliers and all that. Right but repulsive versus wrong but romantic.

In the Roundhead corner is Martin Johnson, England manager and the dictionary definition of a no-nonsense pragmatist. I think we can all agree that Johnson has never been, either as manager or player, a man immediately associated with the word "flair". Just because he has a big head, that does not mean he is one.

In the Cavalier corner, all fuss and feathers, is Chris Ashton, a ball-greedy genius winger whose exuberant try celebrations had already upset Johnson, along with many other rugby purists, not least because they start before the score has been made.

Instead, Ashton salutes the crowd as he approaches the try line, clutching the ball precariously in his left hand before launching into a theatrical swallow dive to finally ground the thing.

Johnson warned Ashton, both publicly and privately, to cut it out after a similar performance against Wales last weekend. Ashton ignored him."Maybe I can send him flowers and a card," said the unrepentant winger afterwards, apparently unconcerned at the consequences of thumbing your nose at the scariest man in sport.

"As I was heading towards the line for the first try, I was thinking about what to do," he added. "It was a bit eeny-meeny-miny-moe, and when I got to the moe bit I just had to do it."

Well that is the Nike sponsorship deal in the bag, if nothing else. But Johnson is not a man who appreciates being undermined so publicly, and will surely be brooding on his own version of the same children's rhyme: "Eeny-meeny-miny-moe, catch a winger by his toe, when he squeals, squeeze his throat, eeny-meeny-miny-moe."

In this civil war, Johnson is like the classic Parliamentarian Roundhead: right but repulsive. Ashton's exuberant celebrations do seem to break the gentleman's code of rugby by showing a lack of respect to the opposition. Plus, they are foolish.

If he drops the ball, or grounds it incorrectly while concentrating on his half-pike, Ashton could squander a precious scoring opportunity. His antics could lose England the match, the tournament, the Grand Slam. Not every team will gift as many chances as the woeful Italians did on Saturday.

Ashton, meanwhile, is the typical Royalist Cavalier: wrong but romantic. Yes, his celebrations are uncouth but they match his style of play: brash, daring, different. It is no coincidence that he came from a rugby league background, shining at Wigan Warriors before crossing codes to rugby union at Northampton. Rugby league is no place for show ponies, of course, but nor is it unduly concerned with notions of "gentlemanly" conduct.

The English Civil War eventually ended with a classic fudge. The Roundheads got their Parliament but they managed to include the Cavaliers' beloved Monarchy into the Constitution. That was called the Glorious Revolution, and it worked rather well.

If Johnson wants to bring glory to English rugby he must tame, but never crush entirely, his exuberant Cavalier.

 

 

Rooney’s wonder goal: was it a blast from his Liverpool past?

Talking of celebrations, I guess Wayne Rooney was entitled to do whatever he wanted after that wonder strike against Manchester City on Saturday.

 

If you have not seen it yet, don’t worry. They will be replaying it until the day you die.

It was not just the technical skill involved in executing an overhead bicycle kick on a whipped-in cross. Nor was it simply the pure net-busting, goal-seeking power. It was also the moment: a strike to settle a derby match and extinguish this season’s title challenge from your neighbours.

That is, as Homer Simpson would say, sweeeeeeet!

Watching such ludicrous skill reminded me of a television show called Wayne Rooney’s Street Striker.

It involved promising young footballers competing in ball-skill challenges in a variety of urban settings: controlling a ball dropped off a tower block, for example, or trying to knock down a pyramid of old paint tins with a well-aimed strike.

The show was rubbish but Rooney himself was a revelation: sweet-natured, smiley and utterly relaxed among the grubby urchins and urban decay. Plus, he demonstrated every one of the required tricks with aplomb.

He seemed so uncharacteristically happy, possibly because it reminded him of his own boyhood, when football was still played for fun, and tricks like overhead bicycle kicks were practised for their own sake.

Was Rooney at Old Trafford, mentally, when he scored that winner, or was he back on a scrubby Liverpool park with his mates? I like to think it was the latter. That is why I would have loved to see him smile afterwards, like a kid, instead of all that grimacing and chest-puffing nonsense.

You don’t do that in a Liverpool park – not if you want to leave with all your teeth.

 

sports@thenational.ae