The Breakdown | Hitting the Wonderwall: Twickenham struggles to make own entertainment


After the US invasion of Panama in 1989, it took their army 10 days to persuade the dictator Manuel Noriega to come out of his hiding place in the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See. Their soldiers famously surrounded the building with loudspeakers and played, among other things, AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long, Van Halen’s Panama, and Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up day and night, until Noriega lost the will to resist. Five minutes into the half-time interval at Twickenham last Saturday, the thought occurred that they could perhaps have got the job done a lot quicker if, like the RFU, it had hired stadium DJ Tony Perry instead.

Which is nothing against Perry, whose act must be just the thing if you’re four tequilas deep on Ocean Beach in Ibiza. Somehow, though, it doesn’t quite go over so well when England are nine points down against Wales and you and your grandfather are trying to talk about whether or not the referee was right to give that scrum penalty while shuffling through the queue for the loos at Twickenham on a freezing cold afternoon in February.

Rugby union has always had a slightly hit-and-miss approach to matchday entertainment. A friend who played professionally in New Zealand told me that he finally decided to retire when he was warming up for a match against the Crusaders and there were, all of a sudden, three men dressed as medieval knights riding horses up and down the touchline waving broadswords about. His exact thought was: “I’m too old for this shit.” So he quit.

I’m all for the regimental goat, the marching band, and the male choir at the Principality. Ireland at the Aviva are a treat and the atmosphere when France play in Paris or Marseille will make your hair stand on end. A match at Twickenham, though, is becoming a bit of an all-over-the-show experience, mainly because it’s not really clear who they’re trying to please. Do the people who hand over their hard-earned for a spot in the West Stand really want to be blasted with 10 minutes of EDM between halves? Or would they settle for a pee, a pint and the chance to air their peeves about the standard of the refereeing?

Rugby seems to have become another of those sports that feels increasingly confused about how to go about satisfying its existing fans while also drawing in some new ones. You can see it in the Netflix documentary about the Six Nations, which is designed entirely to open the game up to a new audience. You may have noticed, too, that this year, for the very first time, the teams are all wearing shirts with the players’ names on the back. It’s been described as a “move to attract casual fans”. They’ll need opera glasses to make out the minuscule lettering on the French kit. The team made it so small because they don’t really think the names should be there at all.

England captain Jamie George talks to his players during an injury break against Wales. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Among all the other whys, whats, and wherefores lingering in the air after the final whistle went on Saturday, there was the pressing question of why someone had decided to play Oasis’s Wonderwall over the public address system during the pauses in play in the final minutes of the game. It’s on the list of post-match talking points somewhere between whether or not George Ford’s fidgety little step to the left really meant he had begun his run-up ahead of that conversion, exactly what they’ve been feeding Chandler Cunningham-South for breakfast, and that Twickenham ever-present: “Now how the hell will we get back to Richmond?”

Whatever state you’re in that your 2024 is going to be improved by a quick high-decibel hit of Wonderwall, it’s probably not sober. But on Saturday, the RFU was also trialling new alcohol-free zones in the stadium, which, according to reports in the Telegraph, caught some of the fans so short that they were left downing their pints on the concourse. The sober enclosures weren’t meant for families, mind, or for people who’d rather not be exposed to alcohol, but for the sort who wanted to get through the game without having to pop up and down over and again to let people out to the bar.

The England players have been doing a lot of talking recently about what they can do to help improve the matchday experience at Twickenham and, thankfully, they have been honest enough to acknowledge that a large part of it comes down to the way they play. But there were one or two other little improvements on Saturday, too. And you wonder whether that comes down to the recommendations made by their new skipper, Jamie George, and his senior players. George, you guess, remembers what it’s like to pay for a ticket at Twickenham, or at least has plenty of conversations with people who still do.

There was a live band pitchside, and the players’ long walk into the stadium worked well; better, for sure, than it used to when Stuart Lancaster made them do it during the 2015 World Cup. Back then, most of the players clearly hated it, which was why they gave it up when Eddie Jones asked them if they wanted to carry it on. Now, if George could just have a word with them about the half-time music too …

Curry’s long road back from injury

Tom Curry has revealed details of the “major” hip injury and lengthy surgery that was required to save his career. The England and Sale flanker has undergone a six-hour operation, having rejected the option to have metal inserted into his hip joint in a procedure similar to that of tennis star Andy Murray.

Curry has spoken to Sharks TV, Sale’s in-house media channel, about the lengthy rehabilitation process after the hip procedure. “It is about almost teaching yourself to run again – even teaching yourself to walk again,” Curry said. “The main thing is to start the running mechanics again.”

The 25-year-old has not played since winning his 50th England cap in their World Cup bronze-medal match against Argentina. He is now working his way back to full fitness but currently has no planned return date. “In terms of coming back to play, I still don’t really know. It is day by day.”

Quote of the week

One time I went to visit my grandma and I got stopped 100m from her house by two guys. They didn’t say anything. They just touched the chain I had on and took out a knife and held it against my ribs. The moment I gave it to them, I started running to my grandma. I was 12 and you can’t compete against guys from prison” – South Africa’s Cheslin Kolbe talks to Donald McRae about growing up in “a proper ghetto”, how rugby saved him, and why defending the World Cup last year meant more than winning it in 2019.

Cheslin Kolbe. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Still want more?

The confusing denouement at Murrayfield was painful for Scotland, and brought the kind of controversy rugby union does not need, writes Robert Kitson.

There is work to do for England but two wins from two Six Nations matches offers a platform for Steve Borthwick’s side, notes Gerard Meagher.

After a Rugby World Cup run built on pragmatism, Borthwick is trying to build something more ambitious – with mixed results, according to Andy Bull.

And while Wales are further behind in their rebuild, Tommy Reffell has been a big positive for Warren Gatland at openside flanker, writes Gerard.

Memory lane

Tony O’Reilly is pictured at Heathrow airport in 1959 after flying home from the Lions’ tour of Australia and New Zealand with his teammates. The Ireland wing scored 22 tries on the tour, adding to the 16 he scored on the 1955 tour of South Africa. O’Reilly’s final international appearance came on this day in 1970, when he lined up for Ireland as a late replacement for Bill Brown in a 9-3 defeat to England. It had been six years since O’Reilly’s last cap and by that time he was already an executive at Heinz; he went on to become the food company’s chairman in 1987.

Tony O’Reilly’s total of 38 tries on tour is still a Lions record. Photograph: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Ima


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