A few weeks ago, England announced their intention to play, during their World Cup campaign, in an all black jersey. The first reaction of fans -- in England, New Zealand and all rugby-playing countries in between -- was to check their calendars.
It wasn't April 1st. The announcement, it seemed, was serious. And so the discussions began. Some defended the shirt, calling it a tribute to New Zealand, to be worn in the land where the all black shirt is the greatest source of national pride. Others said it was an insult to the country for precisely the same reason.
Now we have seen the shirt -- which was, indefensibly, worn by England at Twickenham in a World Cup warm-up game against Wales on Saturday -- and it is as awful as we imagined. It isn't, though, anything like as awful as the embarrassment it has brought to rugby just as the game is approaching its four-yearly high tide of international attention.
As Stephen Jones -- the noted rugby correspondent, not the noted rugby player -- wrote in The Sunday Times:
In the great garment debate, it is difficult to work out who emerged looking the more ludicrous.
Was it England, for... play[ing] in black kit at Twickenham in front of 82,000 fans, the vast majority of whom were supporting them avidly, and at some cost, by wearing England white? Or was it the New Zealanders, with their pathetic affronted reaction, as if the colour black is something on which New Zealand have a world copyright in life and sport?
I'd call it even. England looked idiotic; the New Zealanders seemed hysterical. Rugby was the loser.
For anyone to claim, as those responsible for it do, that the accursed shirt is a tribute to the All Blacks is nonsense. The greatest tribute one team can give to another's jersey is to take sufficient pride in their own that, while wearing it, they expend their every millilitre of sweat and kilojoule of energy -- not to turn up in their opposition's outfits, looking like the athletic equivalent of a tribute band.
For anyone to claim, as many -- mainly Antipodean -- opponents of the shirt do, that the bootleg All Black kit is an insult to New Zealand rugby is equally absurd: we all know what form of flattery imitation is.
The shirt is, though, an insult to English rugby -- and to English rugby fans. It implies that there is something so glorious about New Zealand's rugby heritage that it is worth setting aside our own to celebrate it at the game's greatest occasion. No argument can support this. The English invented, codified and exported rugby. Without us it would not exist. England is the undisputed homeland of the sport and the white jersey is its emblem.
Dressing England in black during a World Cup campaign also implies there is something in rugby's more recent history that suggests wearing such a strip is likely to bring success. This is the daftest notion of all. The All Blacks have never won a World Cup in the professional era and it has been 24 years since a New Zealand World Cup team was ultimately characterised by anything except its inability to live up to its potential and to actually emerge as winners. It's been 16 years since the All Blacks even made a final.
Those wearing the white jersey of England, however, have been the most successful squads over the last two World Cups: winning in 2003 and coming second in 2007. New Zealand may well be favourites for this World Cup, but their form in recent ones is not something England should seek to emulate.
The most offensive aspect of the entire English All Blacks debacle is the true reason for the dreadful strip's existence: cynical, press-courting commercialism of the kind to which rugby union always used -- and still ought -- to be immune. The kit is an advertiser's trick and, on the 'no bad publicity' principle, we have all fallen for it.
There are many of us who welcomed professionalism into rugby without ever feeling it should be allowed to obliterate all the higher ideals of amateurism.
We can tolerate much of professionalism's attendant unpleasantness. We can stomach sponsors' names being appended to the title of every trophy. We can stomach their logos disfiguring international shirts. We can stomach gauche adverts positioned on pitches to jut out of television pictures and tell us to buy beer or insurance.
But we cannot stomach this.
Reflecting on his life, the great Welsh actor Richard Burton said he would swap his every achievement -- all the awards and the acclaim, the millions and the immortality -- to play, once, for Wales.
Though from us the gesture is far smaller, thousands of English rugby fans share a similar sentiment. Whatever we have in life, we would trade for an honour we will never have one tenth the talent or physical attributes to earn: that of playing in the white shirt of England.
And we deserve a national team that respects that shirt as much as we do.
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