‘I am grateful to the gaffer for the opportunity and to God for letting me score,’ said Daniel Sturridge after his last-minute winner for England against Wales in Euro 2016 last week, a goal that certainly made me seriously question the Man Upstairs: I had invested quite heavily in the draw. What an enviable feast of attacking options Roy Hodgson has available at his fingertips for that tricky meeting in the round of 16 on Monday: Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, Sturridge himself, of course, and God. Not to mention Wayne Rooney, who is better used in a deeper role, but could be pressed into service up front. Though not as an impact substitute for the last quarter, as against Slovakia: that might be a role more easily filled by God.
Less blessed with eternal life but godlike on the pitch have been the two outstanding personalities of the tournament so far, Andrés Iniesta and Gareth Bale. Bale has scored as many goals as the whole England team, and has been a magnificent leader of an inspired Welsh side. He is one of the best players on the planet, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. Bale would walk through fire for Wales, and clearly his teammates would do the same for him. Iniesta, known in his homeland as Saint Andrés, is quite magical, his vision, speed and passing skills bewildering opponents, thrilling the crowds and quite possibly winning the tournament for Spain.
If there is a lesson that can be drawn from Eddie Jones’s success and the England rugby team’s heroics Down Under, it is surely this: that not being a boring person can go a long way. Jones is witty, tough and a brilliant man-manager. Look how he boosted Chris Robshaw after firing him as captain; or how he picked Dylan Hartley as captain after Stuart Lancaster had dropped him for being too feisty. Jones’s team is essentially Lancaster’s — with the addition of the awesome Maro Itoje, who could be playing for England forever, unless he goes off to run a country somewhere. But Jones has transformed the side into gunslingers who never take a step backwards. The balance of rugby power is tilting northwards. England are walloping the Aussies; the Welsh are not being disgraced in New Zealand, despite the scorelines; Ireland are holding their own against the Boks.
And the conveyor belt of northern–hemisphere rugby talent is working better than ever before. I’d say that the most important rugby match this weekend isn’t in Australia, where England try to complete a 3-0 whitewash over the Wallabies, but at the Manchester City Academy where England’s Under-20 XV take on Ireland in the final of the U20 World Cup. England are led by the dashing Harry Mallinder, son of Northampton’s head coach Jim Mallinder. Look at the names on the team sheets and bet many will be playing full internationals soon. The 2014 U20 World Cup was won by England, led by — who else? — Itoje, and featured in the pack Paul Hill and Jack Clifford, both of whom came on for England in Melbourne on Saturday. In 2011 England just lost out to the All Blacks, but Ford and Farrell, who even then could start a fight in an empty room, Jonathan Joseph and Marland Yarde all got a chance to shine. It doesn’t pay to goad the All Blacks, but when Eddie Jones says he wants England to be No 1 in the world — and to do that you’re going to have to beat New Zealand — it would take a brave man to bet against him.
Finally, in a small but select field, here’s my favourite Habsburg-themed joke from Euro 2016: ‘What’s the Austria–Hungary score?’ ‘I don’t know. Who are they playing?’ And chant of the tournament, from the Irish to the Swedes during their 1-1 draw: ‘You’re shit, But your birds are fit.’ Not the most politically correct of sentiments perhaps, but true on both counts.
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