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On Thursday, when the RFU’s official YouTube channel announced the England team to play South Africa in Saturday’s World Cup final, there was a nice little touch included. Alongside each of the players’ names was a photograph from their childhood days, as well as the team where they first started playing rugby. Mako Vunipola, Thornbury RFC. Kyle Sinckler, Battersea Ironsides. Tom Curry, Crewe & Nantwich RFC. And so on.
The point of this, I think, was to underline what deep down we all like to think international sport is about: not merely a clash of individuals or a flag-waving exercise, but a test of systems and societies. Underpinning this is the idea that you can draw a straight line, an unbroken link, from the Yokohama Stadium right back to the parks and gardens and streets where this generation first started flinging a ball around. Right back to the clubs and schools and families and communities that forged them. And that, in some abstract but important sense, these 23 men somehow represent us.
Does it hold true? Not perfectly. Rugby union in England can scarcely shrug off its connotations of affluence and class privilege when 17 of the 31-man squad have been privately educated, a proportion that roughly mirrors the Premiership as a whole. The talent at Eddie Jones’s disposal is a product not simply of the English grassroots system, but of market forces and Britain’s ability to lure the best talent from other nations into its own fold.
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Would, say, the Vunipolas have been so warmly received on the streets of this country had they not been so good at rugby? Would Manu Tuilagi have avoided deportation from the UK in 2009 had he just been a regular Samoan immigrant who illegally overstayed his visa, rather than a rising star of the Leicester Tigers team with petitions being launched in his name? There’s often a rank hypocrisy in the way sport lionises itself as some great, colour-blind progressive force. As in many other countries, until the moment somebody decides you can make them some money, your background couldn’t be more relevant.
But in the face of all this, something strange has happened. The England men’s rugby union team, historically one of the most objectionable sporting teams on the planet, has become weirdly and disconcertingly likeable. They have made a virtue of their wildly diverse origins, both on the pitch and off. They come across, in their interactions with the wider world and with each other, as human beings with hinterlands rather than characterless meat towers. And when they step out on Saturday evening against South Africa, it’s possible a few people back home will find themselves, against their every learned and
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