England finally answer call to arms against Wales on difficult day | Jonathan Liew
There is no official smoking area at Twickenham. The organisers are very clear on this point. Smoking and vaping is strictly prohibited in all areas of the ground, enforced by hundreds of stern-looking signs with a handy reminder on the back of your ticket. Unofficially, of course, everyone knows that the smokers congregate near Gates D and F by the green perimeter fence, and no lackey in an orange bib is going to offer a word of demurral. And so it is that at half-time in this taut, gripping game the corners of the ground are thick with the fug of cigarettes, as hundreds of fans merrily puff themselves a little closer to death.
But then, Twickenham is that sort of place: a world governed by tacit conventions and innumerable contradictions. A place built by old money and yet in thrall to the new. A place that likes to think of itself as the home of rugby but which in reality represents a single narrow sliver of it. A place where sport is the draw but socialising is the real heart of its appeal. An 82,000-capacity arena with the feel of a little English village.
That duality was evident a few minutes before kick-off, when – in common with many sporting venues around the country this weekend – a message flashed up on the big screen announcing that both teams “strongly condemned” the war in Ukraine. The players linked arms and there was warm applause around the ground: a sober atmosphere for sobering times, and an entirely understandable gesture by the Rugby Football Union in the current climate.
Of course, there was a good deal less fanfare for another event held at Twickenham just a few weeks ago, when the stadium hosted the International Armoured Vehicles Conference, one of the leading global arms fairs. Military personnel from all over the world descended on the home of English rugby to hear talks and browse hardware from a plethora of international defence companies, many of whom had signed lucrative contracts to carry out work for Russia in the past. Now Twickenham solemnly rose to condemn war, a reminder that as ever in the shapeshifting corridors of the British establishment, two things can always be true at once.
Perhaps the gravity of events in Ukraine, the vague dissonance between this harmless sporting sublimation of war and the real thing taking place on the other edge of the continent, dampened the mood a little early on. But there were other factors at work here too.
As England grizzled and grappled their way to an unsatisfying 12-0 half-time lead, the first post-pandemic Six Nations game at Twickenham with a full crowd felt a little damp, a little edgy, a little unconsummated.
This is still, for all the returning green shoots of life, a country bearing the scars of a national trauma, in a sense relearning how to be among others after two years that have essentially been defined by mutual suspicion, mediated through the thickness of a screen.
The rawness of live sport, particularly an intimate contact sport like rugby, can still feel a little shocking up close. But as a tepid first half gave way to a stirring second, as Twickenham finally found its voice, it also felt like a healing of sorts.
This has always been one of the question marks over Eddie Jones’s England, who for all their fitful progress over the last six years have occasionally struggled to forge a connection with its paying audience. Tickets for this game started at £67 and went all the way up to £172: steep, if largely in line with the going market rate.
But this is a sporting choice as well as a financial one: in common with many big event crowds these days, rising ticket prices have created an increasingly transactional relationship between teams and their consumers, on in which the players are broadly in the service of the audience, rather than the other way round.
At Twickenham, this is most evident in the slightly conditional investment of the crowd in a game’s early stages. The noise does not hit you like a steam train from the first minute like it does at Cardiff or Dublin. Instead, the crowd withholds the full force of its fervour until it sees something it deems worthy of it. It demands to be moved. Come on. Give us something. In the meantime, we’re going to sip on our pints and see how things go.
But as England resisted a daring Wales fightback in the second half, Twickenham finally got what it came for. The first half had been bitty and scrappy, lots of dead air and roads to nowhere. Then Josh Adams and Nick Tompkins and then Kieran Hardy in the dying minutes cut England’s lead to a smidgin, and England’s pack rose to their task. The dynamic Marcus Smith, a delightful street magician of a player, continued to create, to make gaps and find them.
And so, amid a ferocious climactic din, England prevailed. It may have been an imperfect victory, the most insignificant of triumphs in a game taking place in the foothills of a grim foreign war.
But to watch the sun setting behind the West Stand on a glorious evening, with Smith leading England to victory and the smokers nipping off for their full-time fags, was to partake in the communion of life’s smaller pleasures.