In his thoughtful book, The Meaning of Sport, Simon Barnes argues that the English are born to lose. He argues that losing is nothing to be ashamed of, simply something to manfully strive against. And because the English are so pre-disposed to sporting failure, it gives them an entirely different perspective on it, and indeed, on victory.
Oh how we Aussies could learn a thing or two from the English on how to lose well, especially when it comes to Rugby League, a sport in which Australia has experienced defeat about as many times as England has reached the semi-finals of the World Cup. When Australia finally lost the Rugby League World Cup after 33 years in possession of the trophy (have you ever heard of a more ridiculous dynasty in a sport that purports to have global status?), it was summed up in those two most punchy words, ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck.’
More specifically, it was ‘you’re the cunt who cost us the World Cup…you fucking cheat.’ This from the Kangaroos coach, Ricky Stuart, to Ashley Klein, the Briton who refereed the final game that Australia lost to New Zealand, 34-20. But that wasn’t the lot of it. The Aussies didn’t bother collecting their runners-up medals and even shirked the post-match dinner and drinks affair, in the process fobbing off members of the much-lauded Rugby League Team of the Century.
Is defeat really that hard to take? Really? And why is it seemingly so hard for Australia to lose? What is wrong with us?
Let’s go back to Barnes for a second. He reckons that when the national psyche is already prepared for failure, it makes the next defeat part of the ongoing cultural narrative, and in England’s case, makes their victories all the more important. When England win, they don’t really do the smug satisfaction thing. They do the ‘wow, that might not happen again for a really long time, good thing we won that’ thing.
Australia, on the other hand, becomes a collective basket case in the face of defeat. We’re a young country, and have spent the majority of our time proving we’re not just the rabble England chucked down south a couple of hundred years ago. So desperate are we to prove it, and so perfect an arena is sport in which to prove it, that a sporting defeat is like an assault on national identity. Consider the ‘big three’ defeats up till now:
1. England beats Australia in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final. This one really hurt. Australia got past the All Blacks in the semis (which no-one expected, don’t believe anyone who says otherwise), then got done by Johnny Wilkinson’s left boot. On home ground. The press then was all about how Wilkinson beat Australia; that England didn’t have a ‘team’ in the way Australia has a ‘team’; that only Australia wanted to play rugby the way it’s meant to be played. What a load of hogwash. It’s not like Australia didn’t see Wilkinson coming. It’s not like England’s forwards didn’t do their job in making space for him. It’s not like Australia didn’t depend on kicking just as much as England. The real tragedy of that result is that Elton Flatley’s supreme kicking in that game has been forgotten in the years since.
2. England beats Australia in the 2005 Ashes. This was simply a shock. No-one, perhaps even the English themselves, really saw this one coming. The media wrote it off as a weird, flukey event; that England were just lucky in victory, whilst Australia were brave in defeat. Attention immediately turned to ‘the next one.’ Rather than congratulate the English on a job well done, Australia started talking about how they would win the 2007 series 5-0. They did, incidentally, but starting that chat in 2005 before the England team had even done their lap of Trafalgar Square smacked of a badly banged up ego.
3. Italy beats Australia in the 2006 World Cup. This was more about naivety that anything else. Having qualified, Australians figured the Socceroos might as well go on and win the damn thing because, you know, we’re pretty good at other sports. But that is where international football had a surprise in store. International football doesn’t like plucky upstarts. It likes the established order. And Italy are the most established of that order. So when Lucas Neill ‘tripped’ Fabio Grosso to concede a penalty in the last minute of their round-of-16 match, a nation pointed a collective finger at the ‘cheats’ of world football, which included the referees. We’re honest, you’re liars. We’re physical, you’re weak. But that is what you get for supposing that the international order will be turned on its head because Australia finally managed to turn up.
And so back to Rugby League and this seemingly impossible defeat, and our reaction to it. Are we actually the worst losers in the world? My gut tells me yes. Where a country sees defeat as an outrage on our national sovereignty rather than what it simply is – the most common part of sport – is when we need to rethink things. Maybe we should just do what the Americans do and play amongst ourselves yet call everything a ‘world championship.’ That way we’ll never have to experience being beaten by another country. Yep, the sore loser in me thinks that sounds alright.