What, ultimately, is the raison d’être of sport? The result, pure and simple, or how a particular game or moment makes you feel? Different people tend to have different answers to this fundamental question, which is perfectly fine. World Cups, in particular, are about scoring more points than the other lot. The touchy-feely stuff can then be ladled on top, dependent on personal taste.
The complication arrives on weekends such as the one just gone in France. On Saturday night a few of us spoke to the Portugal flanker Nicolas Martins after his side’s gallant defeat by Wales in Nice. Portugal had just been beaten 28-8 but gained tens of thousands of admirers in the process with their immensely watchable brand of fast-paced rugby.
Martins scored their only try and had a strong all-round game. Aged 24, he plays his club rugby for Soyaux-Angoulême in France’s Pro D2 but his captain, Tomás Appleton, is a dentist and only one squad member plays in the Top 14, French rugby’s premier league. What Os Lobos did have, though, was spirit, purpose and skill and Martins’s eyes were still gleaming. “It was an incredible feeling to be part of the small group of people to score in Rugby World Cups,” he said. “After the game, when I looked at my phone, all my friends and family were saying: ‘Congratulations, I am very happy for you.’ It was something special. I think what we showed during this game will make a good future for us.”
He added that Portugal had been inspired by Uruguay’s performance against France last week. Again Uruguay lost but they delighted neutrals worldwide with their proactive style and refusal to bow to the supposed script. “Of course they inspired us. They competed against France, who maybe thought they were stronger than them. Now I think all the big countries are going to be a bit scared [of teams like us]. I think it’s going to be good for the future of the competition.”
The same felt gloriously true of Fiji’s statement win against Australia, the first time since 1954 the Wallabies had been beaten by their Pacific island opponents. It was less the result itself that resonated than the intoxicating new sense of possibility; of so-called “tier one” walls starting to crumble and being replaced by something more egalitarian.
The celebratory hymn singing, the post-match emotion in the stands and back at home … the infectious joy reflected everything good about rugby. Multimillion‑dollar investment by World Rugby has played a part, as has Fijian Drua’s elevation to Super Rugby, previously the sole preserve of the bigger southern hemisphere nations. Above all, though, has been the concerted drive to change the narrative and level out a playing field that has tilted the other way for too long. The minnows, increasingly, are minnows no longer.
The captain, Waisea Nayacalevu, poses with fans after Fiji’s first win against Australia since 1954. Photograph: Francis Bompard/AFP/Getty Images
Which brings us to the tournament’s pantomime villains. The reason why even some of England’s most loyal fans have been growing exasperated has, ultimately, only so much to do with results or even the monotony of their kick-obsessed gameplan. Everyone appreciates winning is the ultimate goal at World Cups and Steve Borthwick is perfectly entitled to set up his team in whatever manner he wants.
The problem, for many, is that England are self-evidently not maximising the talents at their disposal. When Alex Mitchell, a bright scrum-half who specialises in quick-witted counterattacking, kicks away prime turnover ball on the Japanese 22, it is a monumental waste on every level. When the gifted Elliot Daly, even with potential space in front of him, puts left foot to ball almost every time he receives it, it further suggests data-driven orders have entirely suffocated personal expression.
Playing poorly and winning is not remotely a crime; but in this instance the straitjacketed nature of England’s game is serving “anti‑rugby” in its most indigestible form. The boos that rang around the Stade de Nice during the Japan game were not aimed at the number of kicks per se but the one-dimensional approach, which better teams will surely exploit.
England supporters paying €300 a ticket for the privilege of watching the national team at a World Cup are not naive. They have long since learned to accept the good, the bad and the ugly. But what they do want to see is sport played by human beings, not seemingly pre‑programmed robots. They want people to be open and honest when, for example, their team has obviously not played well, regardless of outcome. They want players to whom they can relate and a team capable of making their hearts sing.
Alex Mitchell kicks during England’s turgid victory over Japan. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP
Which brings us back to Fiji, Portugal, Uruguay and rugby’s other have-nots. In their differing ways they have reminded their supposed betters that sport is as much about the journey as the destination. And, crucially, that rugby is infinitely poorer without desire and ambition. “If we want to compete against higher‑level teams and big countries, of course we need more Tests against them,” Martins said, conscious Portugal still have much ground to make up. “In the Rugby Europe championship we play against Poland or Belgium. It’s not good to say this but they are weaker than us.”
Even in defeat, though, Portugal were heroic and inspiring. Which underlines the fact that World Cups are not just outcome driven. They are also about daring to dream and providing supporters, as much as the players, with lifelong memories. Strike a healthy balance between pragmatism, pride and passion and everybody wins.