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England comes Alive

When the alarm sounded, I cursed my promise to wake up at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning.  With only three glorious hours of sleep, I moaned at the Orange-phone alarm.  It was a damp, gray London day, the kind that encouraged staying in bed (the kind I woke up to for my entire week there).  I didn’t want to miss England pummel Australia in the ultimate rugby match of the year – the World Cup, but what could possibly be so thrilling this early on a Saturday?   

With our “brellies” in tow, my boyfriend, Michael, and I met his American colleagues, who had had a refreshing eight hours of rest.  Our plan was to join the crowd at Sports Café, a renowned sports pub in central London, but there was already a line of faithful fans around the block.  A more knowledgeable Londoner would have informed us to be there by 7:30 am for the 9 am match.  Delayed, but not discouraged, we hurried on to Leicester Square.  We were confronted with the Odeon Theatre, where all London movies premiere, that was showing the match without an admission charge.  And- they were serving Fuller’s, a bitter dark ale, which I choked down in my delirium to make me feel better.  It worked.

Every seat in the theater was filled with red, white and black wearing fans, myself included.  Michael, who had just moved to the City of London, had purchased the official shirt of team England for me in an attempt to assimilate me into rugby culture.  Apparently, upon searching for a boy’s small size, the saleslady had inquired, slightly disturbed, “How old is your girlfriend exactly?”  I now understood her comment as I looked around at my larger-bosomed English friends. 

The crowded theater stood up in front of leopard-printed seats for a rendition of “God Save The Queen”.  The referee tossed a coin to decide which team would kick off the match.  “Those are some tough-looking guys,” we all kept saying to each other in awe of their Viking-like statures.  As the match progressed, the brutes had cuts all over their bodies and faces.  There was one member of the English team whose shirt was ripped from shoulder to waist, revealing his bloody back.  Only a small number of players decided to use head protection on the pitch (the field).  I wondered what “blood bin” was until someone explained to me that it was an area off the pitch where players with bloody injuries were treated. 

“Swing low sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home…”  Suddenly the entire theater began to sing.  The song was quite catchy, I joined in enthusiastically.  Was the British equivalent to “Take me out to the ball game”?  We sang it along with our fellow fans on the big screen as well as just by our exuberant theater-ridden selves.  I loved that I could sit in lieu of being propelled between drunkards standing in a pub. 

Disaster struck us momentarily.  We were out of beer.  The theater was only serving one beer per person at a time.  My boyfriend looked as if he had just yelled “Eureka!” and took off with a mischievous grin.  He returned from a corner store with his jacket stocked with cans of Stella.  After the first forty minutes of the game, the three of them rotated through the theater line to stock up for the second half.  I was very proud of their ingenuity.

While the boys were away, a girl in front of me commented, “It ‘twas a bit of an effort getting up this morning.”  Tell me about it, honey.  Erica had been watching rugby with her father and brother since she was a little girl.
“What’s the basic aim of the game?” I asked
“It’s simple really.  Score more points than the other team and don’t get killed in the process,” she replied.
“What’s that huddle-like formation called when they all bend down and puzzle-piece their arms together and face the opposing team?”
“That’s called a scrum.  Usually the eight forwards join together to re-start a play.  It’s after the ball has been knocked on or has not come out from a ruck or maul.”  From what I understood of Erica’s rugby-lingo, a ‘ruck’ or ‘maul’ was something like a ‘tackle.’  Unlike American football, the players are not supposed to hold on to the ball when they go down because it’s thought to hinder the game. 
“Who’s your favorite?” I asked, predicting her fast response.
“Jonny Wilkinson.  He’s such a god!  I want to marry him.” 

Jonny Wilkinson is team England’s fly-half, the position that requires the most brains in addition to skill. According to BBC Sport, he is considered the best defensive fly-half in history.  And although he is one of the smaller members of the team at 5’10” and lacking the signature tree-trunk neck, he became England’s all-time record point scorer at twenty-one years old. 

With only a few minutes to go, Australia tied the score 17-17.  The stadium in Sydney roared; the theater in London stood as we watched our men go into extra-time.  Michael remarked, “I don’t usually care that much about sports, but it’s different when it’s countries against each other.”  I knew what he meant.  There was a different kind of energy when an entire country supported the same team.  We were all in it together.  It mattered more.

England won the World Cup 20-17.  Jonny Wilkinson kicked the winning drop goal.  Most joyful fans continued to the pubs.  I went to Burger King.  After appallingly expensive fast food, I happily returned home to sleep, having just seen my favorite part of England – it’s spirit.

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