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Swinging high in the Dales as the rugby world cup grips

Friday 19 October 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, will be singing the anthem of English rugby, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, tomorrow night, but what ever happens in Paris this world cup has already been a triumph

IT IS, I admit, some way from the Yorkshire Dales to a none-too-posh part of Paris. But the hearts of thousands of Dales folk - woman as well as men - will be there tomorrow night (Saturday, October 20) for, arguably, the greatest triumph in the history of British sport.

It could also, of course, be one of the biggest ever disappointments in British sport. But I'll wager that even if we lose before 80,000 plus fans in the Stade de France, it won't end in tears.

rugby in the dales
Swinging high in the Dales as the rugby world cup

Rugby folk only tend to cry, you see, for joy. And should England become the first ever team to win the World Rugby Cup twice in a row, there will be buckets of tears amongst the cheers in the pubs, clubs and sitting rooms of the Yorkshire Dales.

Many townsfolk wrongly believe that "country sports" means huntin', shootin' and fishin'. Although these do have their enthusiastic followers, the overwhelmingly popular sport in rural areas is rugby union, with cricket taking over the role in summer.

The hot-beds of small club rugby union are in the West Country, the Scottish Borders, North Yorkshire, Cumbria, and the small-town areas of Lancashire and Cheshire. I am a member of two clubs, Skipton and Kirkby Lonsdale - it's tough when they play each other - and follow North Ribblesdale with keen interest.

But we are surrounded by other bigger, professional or semi-profession teams like Wharfedale, Harrogate, Otley, and - over the borders - Preston Grasshoppers, Fylde, Vale of Lune and Kendal.

On top of this, this corner of Northern England has schools that have produced some of England's finest players, like Sedbergh, alma mater to former captain Will Carling and world cup winning centre Will Greenwood. The present England coach Brian Ashton taught at Stonyhurst College in the Trough of Bowland and Ermysted's Grammar School, Skipton, are the current English schoolboy champions.; Little wonder then that from 8pm tomorrow night, the streets and roads of the Dales will be deserted. We will all be in front of the telly, willing over the airwaves that this England team - written off as totally useless just a month ago - can become the first champions ever to successfully defend the world cup.

Like here, rugby union is the game of rural France...It is the game of country folk

Their triumphs in rising from the dead to beat first Australia and then France has brought forward some strange reaction from all corners of the globe. The Aussies sneered and slunk back home, tail between their legs. And they call us Whingeing Poms!

New Zealand's All Blacks, for so long the red-hot favourites, were in an even bigger sulk, moaning about the ref and any other excuse they could think of. Several of them will be playing for English clubs this winter - and they decided to stay in Europe rather than face their bitter fans back home.

But the biggest surprise to me has been the behaviour of the French, knocked out of their own tournament at their own national stadium by their oldest enemies, Perfidious Albion. Yet they joined in the party with the English last Saturday night and a great time was had by all. And not a single rioter in sight.

That makes such a refreshing change from the ugly scenes that so often follow international soccer games. But there could be a good reason for that. Like here, rugby union is the game of rural France, based hundreds of miles from of Paris in the south and west. It is the game of country folk, you see!

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