Yesterday, England’s rugby team defied the odds to defeat the all-conquering All Blacks at a euphoric Twickenham, the home of English rugby union.
A week earlier, I was at the very same venue to witness a slightly less upbeat occasion as England toiled away in the driving rain to lose to the South Africans by a solitary point. Bad timing eh?
That game was my first visit to Twickenham for a long, long while – the last time I can (sort of) remember was a beer-sozzled trip to the ‘Varsity match’ – nominally Oxford v Cambridge, but in reality an excuse for a midweek, all-afternoon drinking session, it seems.
In the intervening period, Twickenham has grown substantially.
Back then, I think it had a capacity crowd of around 30,000 who would clog up the quaint suburban streets surrounding the ground before and after every big game.
But now, the ground is much bigger – there were over 81,000 people at the game I attended, all of whom had to be absorbed by those same old streets. Fair to say that it was not an ideal afternoon for Twickenham residents to consider pottering up to the shops.
Although the game itself was a bit of a disappointment, I still had a great time, getting to spend the afternoon with one of my oldest friends. And during the course of the day, several other thoughts struck me.
Firstly, the atmosphere at the game.
The tone was set by the national anthem which was sung loudly, passionately and completely in unison. To hear (most of the) 80 thousand people bellowing out ‘God save the Queen’ was a spine-tingling moment.
I also liked the simplicity of execution – one singer and a ‘traditional’ rendition.
In contrast, it never ceased to amaze me just how many variations of “Advance Australia Fair” I heard sung before sporting events down under, as the performers took it upon themselves to gallop ahead of the music, add all manner of twiddly bits or even, in a true low point I witnessed once, deliver it Country-and-Western style (Cronulla Sharks, hang your heads in shame). No, keep the anthem-singing simple, I say.
Following the anthemic beginning, there were regular choruses of “Swing low, sweet chariot” to keep both decibel and excitement levels high as England strived (unsuccessfully as it turned out) to win the game. I’d forgotten just how good the atmosphere can be at a packed Twickenham.
Secondly, I liked how the streets around the ground had a real community feel to them.
Perhaps resigned to being stuck in their homes all afternoon, enterprising locals set up food stalls or merchandise tents as well as rigging up speakers to blast out music to entertain the sea of humanity drifting past their front gates.
(Note to self – next time, no matter how short the queue, do not buy a big bag of doughnuts!)
And thirdly, I had forgotten just how good natured a rugby crowd can be.
Despite the shocking weather and the trains being jammed with people, there was a positive vibe throughout.
Fellow passengers, packed together like sardines chatted and joked with friends and strangers alike. The continual banter was warm, witty and occasionally very funny – hearing an entire train carriage laughing in unison is an unusual, yet very enjoyable experience.
Overall, compared with my last visit to Twickenham, the crowds were bigger, my journey was longer and my beer consumption was less, but the abiding memory will be equally strong.
And I don’t think I’ll be leaving it another 20 years until I return again.