November 05 2010
Test match rugby in the northern hemisphere is primarily associated with the RBS Six Nations Championship, which brightens up some of the darkest days in February and March. But crisp November afternoons, when all the leaves have yet to fall, are the backdrop for the Investec Autumn Internationals, which begin tomorrow with the visit of the All Blacks to Twickenham.
There’s a long tradition of reciprocal tours that involve European sides going down under during the UK summer and their southern hemisphere counterparts heading north just as their cricket season begins. It’s a pattern that must leave the players feeling as if it’s endless winter, but it doesn’t bother the spectators one bit. There is no bigger draw in world rugby than New Zealand and the “house full” signs will no doubt be up at Twickenham. The 82,000-seater stadium – built, believe it or not, on the site of a former cabbage patch – may not be a thing of beauty but it packs a terrific atmosphere with facilities to match, and the pre-game build-up is all part of the fun.
Twickenham’s corporate entertainment options are excellent. You can choose between a four-course sit-down lunch in the glass-fronted Obolensky or Wakefield restaurants or a range of suitably hearty finger foods, and there’s a complimentary bar both before the game and for another 90 minutes after the final whistle blows. In the new VIP Players’ Lounge, in the South Stand, the proceedings are hosted by an assortment of former internationals who recount a selection of close-to-the-knuckle stories about their past escapades. Then after the game they yield the floor to the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and New Zealand’s Dan Carter, freshly showered and changed, who talk about events on the pitch.
The dress code at Twickenham is emphatically informal. Ties are definitely out and open-neck shirts prevail, though wise spectators of both sexes come equipped with a warm (preferably waterproof) jacket, even a hat, and a hip flask for the moment when lunch is over and it’s time to go outside.
If these matches are one big party for the fans, they’re serious business for the players – and more than usually so this November, with the Rugby World Cup coming up in New Zealand next year. It’s a punishing schedule for England, who move on to play Australia next weekend, the Samoans the week after and then South Africa on the last Saturday of the month.
I was at Twickenham to watch England play the All Blacks last November and they produced a dogged, if uninspiring, display, going down by 19 points to six. Their efforts in the subsequent Six Nations games weren’t much better, and tries were few and far between. They did lift themselves against France in Paris, and went on to win a test match in Australia this summer. But the words “flair” and “creativity” seem to have been banished from the England coaches’ vocabulary, and many disenchanted commentators and former internationals are gunning for the current England manager, former captain Martin Johnson.
Worryingly, the All Blacks have improved since last year and were too good for their Wallaby and Springbok rivals in southern hemisphere matches this summer. I reckon they’ll regain the World Cup next October at 11-10 with Eurosport, and I fancy Australia to finish runners-up at 5-1 with Blue Square.