Spectator sport

Forget football – rugby is the real beautiful game

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

26 June 2021

9:00 AM

The question is surely destined to become a pub quiz staple: ‘Who moved a bottle 18 inches across a table and was said by the media to have wiped millions from the share price of a major corporation?’ Cristiano Ronaldo’s casual dismissal of a product-placed bottle of Coca-Cola — and Paul Pogba’s subsequent pushing aside of a bottle of Heineken — during Euro 2020 press conferences earned them nearly as much attention as any sleight of foot they performed on the pitch.

For years the corporations have been mightier than the players but this isn’t the case any longer. There has even been some talk of legal action against Ronaldo and Pogba but who would this benefit? More to the point, who would be most damaged? The players are generally seen as the good guys in this and the brands will proceed with care.


It’s only a few days now until Wimbledon is back — and with capacity crowds for the finals. If there is a match a fraction as good as the semi-final between Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic in Paris the other week we will be blessed. That was a match of such stupendous skill, physicality and excellence it was almost laughable. Nobody should be able to play like this. But is Wimbledon about to have its Usain Bolt moment — as in the moment when he’s gone? There’s no Nadal, Federer is creaking and Serena is chasing one last Slam that’s clearly out of reach. There’s just Djoko left and he’s no youngster. He’s prone to going two sets down in big matches, taking a comfort break and returning to play like Superman. Those changing rooms must be very special places.

Forget all the talk of football as the beautiful game — the really beautiful game is rugby, and its ultimate expression came at Ashton Gate in the Premiership semi-finals at the weekend when Harlequins overcame a 28-0 deficit to beat Bristol 43-36 in one of the most thrilling matches ever played in any sport. Like the tennis in France, it was preposterous in its exhilarating brilliance. Nothing should be played at this level. Whether Quins’ Harlem Globetrotters approach will be a match for Exeter’s nightclub bouncer tactics in Saturday’s final is another matter. I’d love Quins to win but — to mix the metaphor further — in a fight between ballet dancers and headbangers there’s usually only one winner.

The Tour de France starts on Saturday in the cycling heartland of Brittany, but is there a less likeable team on two wheels than Ineos Grenadiers? Or in any sport? Just too wealthy, too remorseless, Dave Brailsford’s dodgy empire. Their main man Egan Bernal is their most redeeming character and he’s not in the race. I know we’re meant to support Geraint Thomas, and I am sure he is delightful, but for the next three weeks I will be backing the young Slovenians, Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic. Can the former become the youngest rider to take back-to-back Tour triumphs? Or will Roglic hold him at bay as he did last year until the final time trial on the penultimate stage, when Pogacar made up nearly two minutes to take the yellow jersey into Paris? Breathtaking stuff.

With a double ascent of Mont Ventoux , ‘the Giant of Provence’, in all its heat-blasted desolation, Stage 11 looks like being one of those epic tests in sport best viewed through the fingers. But the highlight for us armchair viewers is the ITV coverage and one of the greatest commentary double acts. Ned Boulting and David Millar explain everything, are loaded with brilliant anecdotes and their knowledge and passion shine through. They’re right up there with Holding and Atherton. We’re short of great commentators right now, but those pairings are as good as it gets.

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