‘sweet smoke of rhetoric’

THE AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS – AS EVER – HAVE PROVIDED SOME RIVETING RUGBY AND NO SHORTAGE OF TALKING POINTS, NOT LEAST AT THE COOGEE OVAL IN SYDNEY. JUST WHAT WAS GOING ON LAST WEEK BETWEEN RANDWICK OLD BOYS EDDIE JONES AND MICHAEL CHEIKA?

There is nothing wrong – per se – with a timely dose of unvarnished incivility. It ventilates, it clarifies and it can enliven the dullest of dinner parties, particularly when directed at the inebriated and the overwrought. The Complete Works of Shakespeare teem with such discourtesies; an asylum of barren rascals, flap-eared knaves, overweening rogues, tedious fools and motley-minded gentlemen. Caricatures always reveal so much more than portraits.

But, as William would tell you, the best slaps in the face – ideally – need to be laced with a measure of wit. So while bristling, American academic, Camille Pagda’s take on Hilary Clinton‘s tilt at the White House – ‘a raisin-eyed, carrot-nosed, twig-armed, straw-stuffed mannequin trundled on a go-kart by the mentally bereft powerbrokers of the state Democratic Party’ – is a wondrous, wince of a slur, I – personally – much prefer CBS golf analyst, now NBC golf analyst, David Feherty’s apology to Colin Montgomerie – ‘I never said that he has a face like a warthog that’s been stung by a wasp. What I said was that he looks like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle’ – a mockery which is framed on the wall of the man-cave. Why? Because any fool can concuss someone with a sledgehammer or slash them with a knife but no one has Feherty’s unique gift for – somehow – combining the two and sliding the sledgehammer so effortlessly between the ribs. He remains the only reason golf’s worth watching.

Which brings us to Eddie Jones, a man with a mind full of razor blades and the tongue of a scorpion. Englishmen from Cullercoats to Cornwall may be vicariously savouring his Nelsonian run of victories this past, glorious year but the poets of the Press Box are far too busy lapping up all the one–liners. Chris Ashton was said to be ‘as mad as a cut snake’; prior to the game against the flamboyant Fijians, Jones insisted that his team were ‘going to play fish and chip rugby. We don’t want a kava party’; on Elliot Daly – my personal favourite, this one – he said, ‘he’s got that educated left foot, hasn’t he? You can tell he’s been to public school’ and going back to his time at the World Cup with Japan, there was the unforgettable, ‘mate, if Japan reach the quarter-finals then I can retire, sit back, enjoy and criticise and be like Clive Woodward on the television. That’s my dream.’ He may not be David Feherty but rugby has no one quite like him.

All of which – if I may say so – made last week’s joust with Michael Cheika such a bewildering disappointment. Cheika himself is no mutt – an exchequer of opinions, an agile mind and – like Jones – no qualms whatsoever, when required, about ‘poking the bear’. Yet the two of them spent the week squawking at each other like Billingsgate fishwives. A skirmish of wits it was not.

So if you – somehow – missed the ding and the dong, here’s a rough summary of how the week-long conversation went.

JONES: ‘they’ve got some issues with the way they scrum so we need to have a meeting with the referee’ …

CHEIKA: ‘he should look at his own players; Dan Cole’s been infringing the law since his career started’…

JONES: ‘mate, the only person who hasn’t spoken about Dan Cole this week is Bob Dwyer; I don’t know if Bob is in the country but we’ve still got one day to go’….

CHEIKA: ‘does he think the refs are that naive that if he has a go at our scrum they’ll forget about his guy?’ …

JONES: ‘we just wanted to make sure we were up front and told the Australians we were having a meeting. Last time they whinged and carried on about the fact they didn’t know’…

CHEIKA: ‘it’s funny how the tune changes; in the summer when we asked for those meetings, he was blowing up and he stormed out of one’ …

JONES: ‘I’ve got different codes of behaviour; I was always brought up that if you have a private meeting it stays private’ …

CHEIKA: ‘there was a lot of vitriol about Australia (last June); his home nation where he coached and where opportunities were given to him to grow as a coach’ …

JONES: ‘I found the Australian media very disrespectful back in June’ …

CHEIKA: ‘personally, if you’re looking to leave a legacy somewhere, you don’t want to hit back at it, do you?’…

JONES: ’Cheika has had a lot to say this week; I’m disappointed he’s upset but I don’t control his emotions’….

CHEIKA: ‘he’s always operated with a chip on his shoulder and now there isn’t one, he’s looking for one’ …

JONES: ‘why would I worry about it? Do you think I’m the sort of person who worries about people’s opinion? …

CHEIKA: ’we’re probably just better off letting them have their own meeting and see if they can influence the referee that way’…

JONES: ’if he wants these meetings banned he’s in cuckoo land’…

I accept that from a journalistic perspective, it looks a bit churlish to be given a free sixpence and then complain it’s not a shilling, a bit like marrying Halle Berry and expecting her to cook. But it was all so – pardon the pun – un-eddie-fying; two mammoths wrestling in a pit of ink; petulant, almost primary school stuff and very, well, very Mourinho.

Yes, no doubt it shifted some newspapers but the game was a ‘testy’ enough dish without the need for the Punch and Judy appetiser. Then again, for every ‘Daily Mail’ Woodward who was ‘disappointed’ to be listening to ‘a shouting match … (which) … seems to have become very personal’ there was a ‘Daily Telegraph’ Healey who prefers his coaches ‘to throw a few grenades’ and who finds sport ‘so much more interesting when people say what they’re really feeling’. In fairness, neither view was untenable.

You wonder, though, what box Jones and Cheika thought they were ticking. Cheika – perhaps – felt he’d sat on his tongue long enough during June while Jones – possibly – felt that because Cheika’d sat on his tongue long enough during June, he’d do the same again in December. But – publicly at least – neither could identify any purpose to the pantomime. Jones: ‘it doesn’t give us an edge in the game … we have a job to inform the media and we’ve done that.’ Cheika: ‘it has no effect … all this stuff that goes on during the week has zero relevance when the whistle is blown’. Which – understandably – left the rest of us scratching our heads and thinking, ‘so what the hell was all that about?’

But then even the masters of the art don’t always get it right. No one has ever – or will ever – throw a better brickbat than Muhammad Ali; he was, as Joe O’Brian wrote, ‘a God with a custard pie up his sleeve.’ Prior to the immortal Liston fight in 1964, he wrote a poem which contained the line; ‘here I predict Sonny Liston’s dismemberment/I’m gonna hit him so hard, he’ll forget where November went’ and then, a decade later ahead of the Foreman fight, he came up with; ‘you think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?/wait ‘til you see me whup George Foreman’s behind.’ Compared to Ali, Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is mere doggerel.

But – interestingly – in his murderous trilogy of bouts with ‘Smokin’’ Joe Frazier, Ali was – by any judgment – mean-spirited, shameless and spiteful; no verse, no wit, just a relentless bullying of Frazier’s ‘blackness’. He branded him an ‘Uncle Tom’, said he was ‘ugly and stupid’, ‘a gorilla’ who wasn’t worthy of being a heavyweight champion, all in the knowledge that Frazier – raised, by the way, with some dozen siblings on a subsistence farm in Beaufort, South Carolina – couldn’t match him either for articulacy or malice. It was the cruelest beating Joe ever took.

This isn’t – for a single moment – to compare Cheika and Jones with Ali and Frazier, merely to point out that there are times when even the very best either get it wrong or misjudge the moment, thinking – perhaps – that that if you beat the beast with a big enough stick, it’ll get so angry it won’t know whether it’s Canada or Christmas. Back to Ali again – this time on ‘Parkinson’ in the mid-seventies – talking about Foreman and the Rumble in the Jungle. Ideally, as always with Ali, you need to actually see him talk this through to get the full flavour – and you can do that on ‘YouTube’ – but here’s what he said about ‘psychological warfare’.

‘You don’t really psych people out, you don’t put fear into them, you just make them fight harder and that’s the thing; they fight too hard, it makes them anxious, they gotta get you. It’s like I told George, I said, okay, sucker, I’m backing up on the ropes and I want you to take your best shots. And I just stood there and I said, show me something, kid, you’re not doing nothing, you’re just a girl, look at you, you ain’t got nothing, come on show me something, sucker, and that made him so angry he just beat himself out; he was so tired he was just falling on the ropes and I said, man, this is the wrong place to get tired.’

Maybe last week got a bit Much Ado about Nothing – all vaudeville vitriol and poignards at dawn – because, like Beatrice and Benedick, the bonds that unite the former Randwick team-mates are stronger than anything that might divide them, not forgetting, of course, that the sandpaper sound-bites suit both personalities. Only they’d be able to answer that one.

But it’ll be a rare fascination to see how Eddie Jones takes on – for example – New Zealand and Steve Hansen when that fixture finally swings around. Will he try to ‘bully’ Hansen in the same way Hansen felt he’d ‘bullied’ Cheika? If so, then good luck. Hansen, in case you haven’t noticed, is a man who applauds his team’s many and various tries by pounding his right fist into his left palm. It’s unnerving.

Jones, though, is a coach who deals in confrontation, be it with his own players, with opposing coaches or with the media. Generally it’s served him well and never more so than this year. Can you seriously imagine an English coach of an England team heading to Australia for a three-match tour and telling the locals he’s going to bring back ‘Bodyline’? We’d have been knee-deep in gunboats.

But if last week – conversely and by omission – proved anything at all, it’s that less is so much more and that nothing has more lasting effect than attic salt. ‘The only time Nick Faldo opens his mouth is to change feet,’ said the incomparable David Feherty once upon a time. Sound bites don’t get much more brutal or much more brilliant than that.

06 DECEMBER 2016

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