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3rd December 2016

Australians and the changing faces of British sport

British elite sport has been transformed, helped in no small part by Australian coaches

This weekend’s rugby action saw England against Australia. There is something iconic about this fixture, across all sports.  You may not be a cricket fan but you will know about the Ashes. It is a rivalry that taps into the primal part of our soul. Beating the French, it is true, comes close to matching the nexus of feeling conjured up by a win over Australia. But it is still not quite the same thing.  The fact is that England has many things in common with France: centuries of shared history, a love of literature, a richly multicultural society. A common climate. Such a long relationship has caused areas of expertise to emerge among the two nations, respected and accepted. England knows that France has the superior cuisine (a French word, of course). France knows that England tries very hard with food.  The relationship is sometimes antagonistic, but what relationship isn’t?

England has no such relationship with Australia. Beyond a common language and a love of tea, there is nothing. A void. Returning to sport, it is easy to see that the two countries are opposites. Their styles are not compatible. In cricket, England have tended to favour conservatism and endurance. England produce grafters and accumulators: your Geoffrey Boycotts and Michael Athertons. Occasionally there have been mavericks. Denis Compton was one; Ian Botham was another. But these players have always been treated with faint suspicion, as having arisen in spite of the system not because of it. Meanwhile, Australia favours dashing, charismatic players. Don Bradman was the epitome of this style, the so-called ‘Australian way’. More recently, the likes of Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne have crushed England’s grafters with unrelenting aggression. The difference is starker in rugby. The World Cup final of 1991 demonstrated this. The team that took England to the final that year was built on forward domination orchestrated by the likes of Brian Moore and Jason Leonard. The team that took Australia to that final relied on the twinkling feet of Michael Lynagh and David Campese. Australia won this clash of ideologies.

In the build-up to the game on Saturday, the England coach, knowing his history, tapped into this ideology by raising concerns over Australia’s scrummaging technique: “Australia have issues with their scrum, some technical issues.  I am not going to sort it out for them.” For his part, the Australian coach retorted: “Maybe we are naive, idealistic, but we want the Wallabies to be loved because of the way we play footy”. England pinpoint areas up front, while Australia are concerned with ideals, with the way they play. This is standard stuff: grafters against the stylists. So far, so familiar. But it is worthwhile considering who exactly the coaches in question are. The England coach is Eddie Jones, an Australian, and former club teammate of Michael Cheika, also an Australian, and Jones’ opposite number. How has this turn of events come about?

English sports fans of the 2000s have been fed a diet of ‘us’ against ‘them’ of the type mentioned earlier. But change is afoot. The Australian team famously conquered by Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot in 2003 was in fact coached by none other than Eddie Jones. England’s rugby league side is coached by an Australian, Wayne Bennett. The cricket team has witnessed a similar phenomenon. The Ashes-winning side of 2015 was coached by Trevor Bayliss, a New South Welshman and former (temporary) coach of Australia. Meanwhile, the former supremo of British Cycling was Shane Sutton, another Australian. Not since the heyday of Kylie have Australian tones so dominated the airwaves in this country.

This is not a complaint — far from it. England’s cricketers, their latest annihilation at India’s hands notwithstanding, have started playing with flair and aggression, more like Botham than Boycott. In a quirk of fate, Eddie Jones has overseen England rugby’s longest winning streak since 2002/3. He himself was a victim in that sequence of English victory. The style of play he has instilled in the class of 2016 is dynamic and intelligent: the definition of ‘heads up’ rugby. Jones has added an attacking element to England’s traditional forward dominance and the results are there for all to see.  Whisper it quietly, but England seem to be mastering the ‘Australian way’. Scary.

It seems that the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has blurred. Ideologies have been shattered. English sport is reaping the benefits of an Australian-led regeneration.

As the dust settles, it appears that there has been some sort of revolution. See, I told you we had more in common with France.

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