Twickenham typifies what rugby is about
March 11, 2014
England arrive at Twickenham for their new, much-hyped entrance © PA Photos
About three-quarters of an hour after England's win over Wales, Joe Marler stood on the balcony above England's indoor gym buried in the heart of Twickenham's West Stand waiting patiently for the media to ask him about the game that had just been. Due to the unusually warm weather, Marler had a more of a red tinge to him than normal, but the smile was showing no signs of drooping.
It was the same for the thousands of England fans who had just witnessed their win over Wales. Twickenham has experienced some memorable days in 2014 but it has not always been that way. Their win over Italy last season was played in front of a deathly quiet crowd, there was little to be excited about. At the moment, there is a real excitement surround this team.
"The atmosphere was unbelievable," Marler said. "There's been a huge change over the last 12 months, there's a real buzz. After the anthem when we took our tracksuits off, there was calm before the storm. But it wasn't calm as the whole stadium was singing 'swing low'. It was a case of 'alright then, this lot are with us let's put in a performance'.
"It's great to play at home in an atmosphere like that. It lifts you in those darker moments, like when the ball's been in play for a few minutes and as a front-rower you are gasping for air. But you can hear the crowd shouting and I don't want to let them down or my team-mates so it's an enjoyable place to play."
An enjoyable place to play and a match-day atmosphere that has changed hugely over the past few years. When Andy Robinson's England were rumbling through their very average gears in the mid noughties, the Twickenham experience used to be a case of drinking the town centre dry and then walking up to the game, piling in minutes before kick-off, or just after. This has now visibly changed.
There are some signs of the old traditional matchday events © Getty Images
As you walk around Twickenham before the game, there is a vibrant community feel. Nationalities mix with one another, people talk about yesteryear and the present, there is seldom any animosity. The West Car Park is now the social hub.
Some will lament the slowly declining space for traditional picnics housed on the back of 4x4s complete with brie and merlot as the RFU-approved beverage marquees get bigger every year. There is a fully functioning Guinness pub propped up alongside a tent filled with Bollinger. Pasties can be bought alongside pork rolls, yours for the pricey sum of £7. On such a day as balmy conditions push 18C, the hot toddy stall offering 40% proof drinks for £6.50 had few takers.
Adding to that now is the new venture forged by the England management where the team walk into the stadium through the famous lion gates after the coach pulls up in the car park. The crowd's take on this new gimmick prior to the Ireland game was tentative as they attempted to fathom how to treat it but against Wales there was an outbreak of 'Swing, Low', a huge cheer as Chris Robshaw stepped off the bus and a feeling of supporters urging their team on with some hanging off the balconies in the West Stand. "Free energy" was how one slightly sceptical Welsh supporter described the exercise as.
It did have an effect on the players as Robshaw highlighted. "The fans were absolutely outstanding. As soon as we got off the bus there wasn't a chance of us losing the game because of them."
While the social pre-game side of the Twickenham experience has changed, so has the match-day side of it.
© Getty Images
"It's all changed since I last came to Twickenham in 1966," said a Welsh fan sat with his grandson. They took their seats an hour before kick-off to soak it in. There's always a feeling of nervous anticipation for a game, no more so than Sunday, but for some sitting in their seat a good while before the match starts is part of the routine, the feeling of being part of the whole occasion.
It is hard to escape current marketing push 'carry them home' emblazoned around the ground. But it was a nice touch to put flags on each seat in the lower tier.
Pyrotechnics seem to be the in-vogue welcome for teams as they enter the field but on a windless day such as Sunday it can lead to a haze of smoke masking the play for the first couple of minutes. There were also about ten times as many people cluttering the field as there were players immediately before the start.
The thunderous music which greets the team and scores is not to everyone's taste. Against Ireland it had a counter-productive effect as after England struck a penalty to make it 6-10, the crowd cheered but the booming tones of Rudimental meant once that had stopped, voices were quietened and were only raised again when Danny Care scored. Sometimes the crowd should be left to celebrate points scored without artificial encouragement. "They do pick their music carefully but we don't want it to be like football", said the man sitting two rows behind the press box with two children alongside him, one in a Wales shirt and other sporting a red rose.
On some occasions, there is no substitute for tradition. 'Swing, Low' was sung with gusto on five occasions against Wales, and with frequency in the bars in the stadium and surrounding pubs after full-time. The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try or at the full-time whistle in a closely contested match. Manufactured atmosphere can only go so far.
Laura Wright sings Jerusalem prior to the players walking out © Getty Images
What your Twickenham-goer makes of the game day experience is purely a subjective thing. There is something there for everyone, though a hassle-free journey into the stadium using public transport still seems a far-flung fantasy.
But what has become abundantly clear, and praise must be levelled at Lancaster for this, is the English public are embracing this team. There is a pride in the shirt and in the players. Nothing raises Twickenham like a successful team. Phil Vickery has played in a fair few of these and if he is enjoying the atmosphere at Twickenham, then they must be doing something right.
"The atmosphere beforehand was special, there were kids there, grandparents, parents, young and old," Vickery said. "It's just great - the stadium, the fireworks, the music, the game, the fans, the noises, the impacts, the rugby, the hits, the tries. I'm a huge rugby fan and I have a duty to promote our game, but for me on Sunday, I don't know what more you could want from a rugby game.
"Even if you weren't a rugby fan I couldn't believe for one second that anyone in that stadium did not have a fantastic day. It was a great occasion and that typifies what rugby is about."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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