Churchill Cup reaches climax
June 2, 2007
"Quite what Winston Churchill, the polo-playing product of a football-playing school, would have made of having a rugby tournament named in his honour is anybody's guess." Huw Richards reports
But on a bright Twickenham day, it is hard to imagine that any of the paying customers regarded the Churchill Cup as anything but a good idea.
Such judgments are a matter of taste, but an afternoon offering three proper matches of 15-a-side rugby, relaxed in atmosphere and with every team taking a positive attitude at the same time as giving full commitment, seemed the ideal way to sign off an overlong season.
Sevens are all very well, but too often are the sporting equivalent of eating chocolate - fun
England Saxons v New Zealand Maori was a truly worthy signoff, the Saxons providing a leavening of the unbroken southern triumphs resounding from the south earlier in the day by taking the Cup with a 17-13 victory after replacement lock Tom Croft had reprised his long-distance try in the EDF Energy Cup final, going down the same touchline in the opposite direction to claim the decisive score.
The heart of the contest lay, though, in the Saxons defiance during a sustained siege of their line while they were reduced to 14 men through the sin-binning of flanker Will Skinner, later surprisingly named Man of the Match, beating off surge after surge in a passage of play that ended with the Saxons line intact and four of their players needing treatment.
Earlier Scotland and Ireland's A teams had provided a lively contest complete with exciting conclusion as the pacy Thom Evans surged over four minutes from time to pull the Scots within a single point, only for Calum McRae to miss a horribly difficult conversion.
But if there's an element of paradox in the name of the competition, there was too in the structure of the day. USA v Canada, kicking off at 11.30 am, may have been the lowest status match as two previously winless teams played off for Bowl, but it was also the most important.
It was a full international between teams who will contest the World Cup in a few months.
These are also the two nations the tournament is really about. The tournament certainly has value for the other contestants. A second layer on the ladder immediately below your full team is a vital element in player development.
Mike Ruddock was undoubtedly right, as he has been on so much, when he argued that dropping Wales's A team would cost the Welsh game much more than it saved.
But for the North Americans it is rugby lifeblood itself - 'our Six Nations' in the words of Rugby Canada's Ian Kennedy.
The Canadians retained continental bragging rights, with the Americans claiming the first and last tries but Canada doing all the scoring in between as they ran out 52-10 winners.
Kennedy argues that their young team is aimed more at the 2011 World Cup than this autumn's tournament, but there are players who are likely to catch the eye in France, notably the impressive backrowers Nanyak Dala, Adam Kleeberger and Sean-Michael Stephen.
That Canada go off to play the All Blacks and will also have a pre-World Cup warm-ups against Portugal while the USA disperse and have only a match against Munster in Chicago in late August between them and their first World Cup match said something about the difference between the two
US coach Peter Thorburn said :"The Churchill Cup is our development programme. Without it we would have nothing.
There's the NA4 four-team tournament, but the US team is divided for that. Otherwise we have World Cup qualifiers and that is it."
And if there is a degree of heard-it-all-before familiarity in his insistence that American rugby is a sleeping giant that will wake once the game is established in schools and colleges and on television, he suggests that the crucial catalyst may at last be at hand :"I believe that we'll have a competition, an American Super 8 with Canadian involvement, that allows people to stay in the USA and play decent rugby as professionals, within 12 months."
All, we must hope, in the near future.
In the present, though, the Canadians can celebrate an ascendancy over their neighbours that matters as much to them - and for the same reasons of getting one over on the bigger guy next door - as beating Australia does to New Zealanders or this year's victory over England meant to the Welsh.
Churchill, half-American and an imperialist to the core, might on reflection not have approved at all.