Sometimes when pride and ambition are punished, it’s called a tragedy, as in Hamlet: “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!”
But sometimes the same process is richly comic: “I walked into a bar the other day – ouch! It was an iron bar!” And that’s called a pratfall.
For many observers, the England rugby team’s pratfall at Murrayfield in the Six Nations was hilarious. And not all of these who thought so are Celtic in origin. Plenty of English people who were cheering for their home nation at the start of the match against Scotland rather enjoyed England’s defeat.
Because they had it coming.
Now, as England travel to Paris for their next match, we shall find out if the thrillingly inconsistent French can do what the Scots did – or whether there will be an English backlash. It’s even possible that the hiding in Edinburgh was just what England needed.
There is sometimes a real satisfaction in turning on your own team. When the England cricket team were at their lowest ebb in the 1980s, each humiliation was gratifying because it meant the system that made such humiliations inevitable would have to be changed… and changed it eventually was.
There is a collector’s item of England supporters booing the football team and abusing the manager during a 3–0 away victory. That was in 2007, the team was Andorra and the manager was Steve McClaren. He was sacked later that year after a defeat at Wembley by Croatia.
These examples of hostility to your own side sprang from a desire for a better team, for better results, for more success. But in the mixed response to the defeat of the England rugby team, there was a certain malicious pleasure in the proof that the team was not as good as it thought it was. England under Eddie Jones have a knack of alienating sympathy. There is a certain lack of humility.
The big test in international rugby is New Zealand: England have swerved that challenge since Jones took over. The collision will finally take place this autumn: win that match and they will earn serious respect. If you want to strut like the All Blacks, you must first beat them. England posing as All Blacks Lite – or White – has never really carried conviction.
But there has always been a slightly equivocal response to the England rugby union team – and if you’re examining any phenomenon in English life, you might as well start with class. Before TV, rugby internationals were the exclusive property of people who went to rugby-playing schools. It was an inside job.
These days, the England team represents us all: and in good times that’s a marvellous thing. I took part – as an observer, I should stress – in the open-topped bus parade after England won the rugby World Cup in 2003 and it was wonderful to see London sharing the joy of it all.
But the England rugby team can easily stop being “us” and become “those toffee-nosed twits from Twickenham”. Sport routinely exposes individuals and teams who aren’t as good as they supposed. It’s mildly amusing when a dustman treads on a banana skin: it’s a rolling-in-the-aisles job when it’s Lord Stuck-up of Snootyshire.
So: England have been taken down a peg or two. How will they respond? Let’s remember the words of the great England cricketer Derek Randall: “We can rise again like the pheasant!”
“Don’t you mean the phoenix?”
“I knew it began with an F…”
Six Nations Rugby: France v England is on Saturday 10th March at 4pm (k/o 4.45pm) on BBC1 and at 4.45pm on 5 Live