Spectator sport

The Barmy Army showcase the best of English character

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

1 February 2020

9:00 AM

Not everyone likes the Six Nations — a recent well-received book on the state of rugby union described it as a ‘mean motherfucker’: it is by far the biggest institution in rugby and its revenues easily outstrip the World Cup. But, argues author Mike Aylwin, the Six Nations is run by itself for itself, and the ‘interests of the game’ don’t figure in its remit unless its prosperity is threatened by neglecting those interests. Oh well, you can’t please everybody all the time. Less forensic souls such as myself will always find it a comforting harbinger of spring, and compelling entertainment.

The biggest game of this year’s edition is on Sunday. France and England are the only potential winners of the contest. Ireland seem over the hill, however brilliant Andy Farrell’s coaching skills. They are too dependent on an ageing back row, backed up by Johnny Sexton’s kicking. Wales aren’t as good as they thought they were, though teenage wonderboy Louis Rees-Zammit could be electrifying on the wing. Let’s hope he is given his chance. Can England lift themselves after November’s World Cup final, and will the Saracens bloodbath have an effect on the international side? Judging by Harlequins’ brutal annihilation of Sarries at the weekend, this saga has some way to play out.

As for Quins, it is a mystery why Eddie Jones hasn’t taken a chance on their brilliant young prodigy Marcus Smith at stand-off. And as for France, they have won the past two Under-20 World Cups, and a lot of these players will now be getting a chance as full internationals.

So farewell then Billy Cooper, the magnificent Barmy Army trumpeter, who has decided — I suspect after some advice from Mrs Cooper — that with children aged four and two he would have to be pulling his touring horns in a bit. The Barmies can irritate the hell out of many cricket fans, but it seems to me they showcase the best of the English character in a vivid and enjoyable way — proud, showy, emotional and unashamed.

However you voted on Brexit, it’s hard not to be stirred by the ritual of the Barmies singing ‘Jerusalem’ first thing in the morning. Because after all, it is love for our country that unites us all, whether we are watching on the sofa or, like the Barmies, doing it with beer, bare bellies and by dressing up as cocktail waitresses. The players certainly love them and many old stagers want to be associated with them. Unless you are a full-time sourpuss (or a Lord’s official) you couldn’t fail to enjoy Billy’s soundtrack to the game — some Last Night of the Proms staples of course; the theme from Rocky when David Warner goes out to bat; and ‘Simply The Best’ when Dom Sibley is at the crease — not the best pun, but workable.

As for Joe Root’s increasingly attractive side, the introduction of Zak Crawley at Cape Town freshened up the whole atmosphere. It looked like a risk but was pivotal, I understand, in boosting the team dynamic. There’s now almost a majority of very young, hungry players — Crawley, Sibley, Sam Curran, Dom Bess and Ollie Pope, all 24 or under, good players who want to become even better. The positive leadership trio of Root, Buttler and Stokes now have a fine young brigade to back them up. This is a team that could go very far.

How refreshing to see some referees overseeing FA Cup matches at grounds not troubled by VAR paraphernalia, relishing being in control of proceedings. Goals were scored, crowds cheered, the game restarted. And linespersons enthusiastically thrust up their flags to signal offsides while crowds complained vociferously if they thought the officials didn’t have a clue. Just as it’s meant to be.

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