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The Gracious English

The English are renowned for their good manners, so why should anyone be surprised that they graciously allowed themselves to be eliminated from the rugby World Cup over the weekend.

And as hosts of the tournament, it was even more meet and proper that they should take a back seat. In the unwritten book of etiquette – which other lesser breeds beyond the law would be well advised to study – it is axiomatic that the party-givers sublimate their own enjoyment for that of their guests. Such celebrations, we’ve all been taught by our elders, are never about the hosts but always about the visitors.

So, well done England, I say! We should all be proud of you – management, coaches and players alike – as many of us are.

Some, though, have questioned why the supreme sacrifice should have been suffered at the hands of Australians. After all, just as the English are rightly known for being polite and self-effacing, Australians are justly famous for being rude and self-aggrandising, gloating in victory, resentful in defeat.

But that, surely, is to miss the whole point. If one is going to deliver a lesson in humility and manners, then the pupils should be those who have most yet to learn about such qualities, not those who already practise them.

Meanwhile, the press (though emphatically not the Scottish, Welsh or Irish papers) has rather taken the gloss off England’s noble gesture by launching unmerited attacks on the rugby establishment that inspired it. But Fleet Street’s hacks are seldom if ever identified with the finest of English traditions in matters of taste and dignity. Indeed, they seem to have been actively encouraging their readers to believe not only that England might win the trophy – given the team’s home advantage and their own optimistic prognostications in the face of a significant body of evidence to the contrary – but that England would win it. Most readers, fortunately, seem to have rightly rejected such thoughts as unpatriotic twaddle.

Even so, the Rugby Football Union will now have to go through the formalities of assigning blame, if only to keep the journalists at bay. Already an enquiry has been proposed, to be conducted over the coming months. It will no doubt conclude that heads must roll, although by then most of us will scarcely remember which heads are which, least of all those belonging to members of the governing body.

Many newspaper critics, especially those writing for the financial pages, lament that England’s departure will cost the economy up to £3 billion in lost revenue from sales of beer and hot dogs. Well, that may be something of a blow to pub landlords and stall-holders, but the British economy is booming at present and a few billion quid spent on goods bound for the lavatory is neither here nor there.

The next World Cup will be held in Japan, a country that equals and perhaps even exceeds Britain in its devotion to good manners and ancient protocols. One may confidently anticipate, therefore, that Japan will act in the same generous spirit as England and leave the tournament early, giving England the same opportunity to win it as every other visiting team.

Just four years to go. I’m getting excited already.

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