This article by Mick Cleary contains what is for me the best sporting quote so far of the new century.
To get it you have to get the setting. Last Saturday England played and very narrowly defeated the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team, in Wellington, New Zealand. Either side could have won it, but England did, and it’s only the second time that England have beaten New Zealand in New Zealand, the last time being in 1973.
The episode of the game that is already starting to be a rugby legend was the ten minutes early in the second half when two key England players, Dallaglio and Back, were off the field for ten minutes for infringements. New Zealand were encamped on the England line, and a New Zealand try looked like a pushover, literally, followed in all likelihood by another. Game over, in other words.
But for the next ten minutes the six remaining England forwards stood firm against the eight New Zealand forwards, and not only prevented a New Zealand try but contrived to get England up the other end and enable England goal-kicking wonder boy Jonny Wilkinson to kick yet another penalty goal. I can remember when eight New Zealand forwards would prevailed against twelve Englishmen. As I say, the stuff of legend. But now here comes the money quote. England’s mighty captain, second row forward Martin Johnson, was asked the usual bollocks questions afterwards about it all, and one of the questions happened to be about “what was going through your head” during those ten minutes. Ninety nine times out of a hundred a sportsmen in such circumstances would have replied with more bollocks about how we had to hold out and stand up and be counted and step up to the plate and blah blah blah.
Loosehead Graham Rowntree, who was later to resist calls to come off after badly bruising his arm, making scrummaging both difficult and painful, held his side up by hook, crook and balls-out defiance. “It was all hands on deck,” said Rowntree. “The All Blacks were telling us that they were going to have us.”
“All hands on deck.” Now I’m not complaining. Rowntree is a rugby player, not a poet. That he responds with a cliché from England’s dead maritime past when talking about one of the highspots of his life is no dishonour. I mean, if you’d just finished playing a game of international rugby, would you always have the right words ready?
Anyway, New Zealand didn’t “have us”. Mick Cleary’s report continues.
They didn’t. Captain Martin Johnson was asked what was going through his head as they packed down.
And here it comes. Enjoy.
“My spine,” came the deadpan reply.
They press Johnson, most of them not having heard what they just heard. Maybe no flowery bollocks now, afterwards, but surely there was something a bit more inspiring than that said at the time?
Surely there were some stirring words delivered by the captain?
“Do you expect me to have some Churchill-type speech in my pocket for such moments,” Johnson said with a wry smile. “I told them to bend over and push.”
It’s funny how the attempt to say something flowery results only in blandness and tedium – “all hands on deck”. But, the man who in the very next breath proclaims himself as the verbal opposite of Winston Churchill – “bend over and push” – nevertheless finds the perfect phrase, at one of the highspots of his life, which will for ever afterwards decorate all descriptions of those amazing ten minutes of six-against-eight rugby. What was going through your head? “My spine.” Beautiful. A bollocks question (and what a piece of pure luck that it was “head” rather than “mind” – “mind” would have spoilt it) is turned, by the simple procedure of taking it literally, into the feed for the perfect reply. From now on, whenever a British journo asks a panting sportsman what was going through his head/mind when blah blah blah, there will be giggles all round.
I still don’t think it makes much sense to talk of England being the top rugby team in the world. That’s for the World Cup to settle. Besides which Australia could beat England next Saturday. But one of the rules for enjoying sport is that when things go well for you and for your team, you must enjoy it. I can’t say that I really enjoyed the actual game. All I did was listen to the last quarter of an hour on the radio, and take their word for it that it was a great performance, and all the greater for not actually having been all that good, if you get my meaning. But that “my spine” bit, which I’ve only just read, I really really enjoyed.
All hail Martin Johnson, and well spotted Cleary. Because people saying these things is not enough. They have to be noticed and nailed to the wall of posterity by a man with a column.