Beware of the underdog
May 22, 2013
The Saints celebrate their semi-final win over Saracens © PA Photos
I have a dog. It took a free vote in the House of Durden where, despite presenting a compelling case against the motion, I was roundly trounced by four ayes to one noooooooo!!!! I have grown to really like our dog Flossie. (Incidentally, not the most macho name to shout in a park in the apparently obligatory high-pitched tone. Why is this necessary? They aren't dolphins for goodness sake). So I like Flossie but in no way could you describe her as an Underdog.
Now, I love an Underdog. We all love an Underdog. If there was a cross breed of canine called an Underdogdoodle it would almost certainly win best in show at Crufts and I would have a pack of them. The expression "every dog has its day" is well worn but still one of the finest sentences in the English language. To give it the roughest of translations it means hope for all and is there any better life affirming, motivating, all embracing substance than a dash of hope.
And so we turn, in a mildly windy and torturous way, to Northampton's chances of winning Saturday's Aviva Premiership Final against a Leicester side who are appearing in their ninth consecutive end of season winner takes all showcase occasion. Now these Saintly underdogs aren't a cowering miniature cross breed - an Underhuahua for instance. As underdogs go they are pretty impressive and in good health, probably with a shiny nose. I'm thinking an Underdor or a Rhodesian Underback. (I sense I am writing another piece that is degenerating into banality so I shall put an end to this fantasy breeding.)
Put it this way, they aren't the Buster Douglas of 2013. They're not facing the rugby equivalent of Mike Tyson who was at the time (1990) the undefeated heavyweight champion of the World. They can look into the eye of the Tiger and think to themselves, if we play like we did in the first 40 minutes at Allianz Park in the semi-final: if we produce the level of intensity and precision that we did at the Millennium Stadium for the first 40 minutes of the 2011 Heineken Cup Final then, in keeping with their recently adopted mantra, they are well within their rights to ask "why not us?"
If I was Jim Mallinder and Dorian West - there's an interesting crossbreed - I would dispense with the video analysis sessions this week and instead force the Northampton squad to watch a collection of films celebrating the Underdog. Rocky, written by Sylvester Stallone which I always find a little difficult to get my head round for some reason, would do for starters although the pugilistic central theme may not send out the right disciplinary message.
That old nag Sea Biscuit did all right for a no hoper. It's amazing what a few sugar lumps can do, although the strength and conditioning crew may have a few issues with that approach too. The Dodgeball squad (Ben Stiller, 2004) had wrenches hurled at them in training and they came good, although I can't imagine Dylan Hartley or Courtney Lawes not returning the coaches fire with a few tools of their own - perhaps sledge hammers and tomahawks.
Tin Cup, Kingpin, The Karate Kid, Meatballs, Moneyball, (anything with balls in it's title), Escape to Victory, Bambi, they would all do the job of underlining the simple fact that against seemingly overwhelming odds the downtrodden can triumph. "They're movies, you idiot!" I hear you cry but it happens in real life too - just ask Wigan Athletic . (Although their FA Cup winning story didn't quite have the happy ending Hollywood would surely demand.)
What about the 2005-2006 Edmonton Oilers who finished the Canadian ice hockey regular NHL season in eighth place in Western Conference and went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final dispensing with among others the Detroit Red Wings and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim on their way. (I only chose that example so I could highlight the most magnificent team name in sport, although the Ducks have since been sold and are no longer mighty, just standard ducks in case you were interested - which I grant you, is unlikely.) The Oilers actually lost the Stanley Cup in the seventh game but they had defied the greatest of odds to get there.
The Saints could channel the spirit of Goran Ivanisevic who after a year out with a shoulder injury and ranked 125 in the world, was given a wild card to Wimbledon in 2001. He went on to win his one and only Grand Slam title. The Franklin's Gardeners could take heart from The US Olympic ice hockey team, essentially a collection of college students, who beat the seemingly invincible USSR on their way to winning gold at the Lake Placid Winter games in 1980. (The so called Miracle on Ice.) Greece made Ronaldo, the big baby, bawl his well moisturised eyeballs out, when they beat Portugal to win the 2004 European Championship final. You'll have your own list of great sporting upsets - the point is they happen.
In the natural order of things you wouldn't expect a Tiger to feel too threatened by a Saintly Bernard but Cockerill's men would do well to read the signs at the gates of Twickenham on Saturday. "Beware of the Underdog." They do have their days. Woof ! Woof!
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Mark Durden-Smith is the lead presenter for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN