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Never fear England fans – Jose Mourinho, Pete Sampras and Arsenal prove ‘playing ugly’ can succeed

Ben Earl, Courtney Lawes and Ollie Chessum take a breather in the Nice dressing room

Soon after the 34-12 victory over Japan in the bowels of the hot and sweaty Allianz Riviera, you could sense England players’ frustration mounting like that of Russell Crowe’s character Maximus in Gladiator.

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

After all, they had just lacerated and decapitated their opponents with the bare minimum of fuss only to be treated to boos in the arena and an even greater volume of catcalls on social media, criticising their lack of enterprise.

England are here to qualify for the quarter-finals, which quite a few people thought might be beyond them heading to France. Box all but ticked.

They scored four tries and took maximum points against an opponent who had previously claimed the scalps of South Africa, Scotland and Ireland. Box ticked.

So why are they being greeted with more pelters than plaudits? This is where this particular England team has a complicated relationship with their travelling support and the greater sporting public at large. In Marseille, England’s fans rallied to their cause after Tom Curry’s third-minute red card against Argentina, producing a wall of noise that head coach Steve Borthwick claimed was the loudest he had ever heard as a coach or a player.

A week later and 120 miles along the French Mediterranean coast, this same group of players are now being booed for playing in much the same way. You can understand the players’ perplexity.

Borthwick made the point last Friday that the last two England teams to reach the World Cup final in 2003 and 2007 only scored four tries in their eight matches against tier-one opposition. These were not swashbuckling gunslingers by any means. Indeed to extend Borthwick’s point, the 2015 All Blacks are the only champions this century who truly thrilled all the way through the tournament.

Will Greenwood scores in the corner
Will Greenwood scores for England against Wales in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final, one of only four tries they scored against Tier 1 nations in their runs to back-to-back finals - Getty Images/Nick Laham

When Jonny Wilkinson kicked England to a gritty semi-final victory against France in 2003, the Australian Daily Telegraph produced a picture of the fly-half with the headline “Is That All You’ve Got?”. Now the English public – and press – are asking that same question after two victories by a combined margin of 71-22 against their toughest pool opponents. Curry’s red card and the slippery conditions played a part in both performances, although the 14-man All Blacks seemed to manage to handle the ball reasonably well in torrential conditions against Namibia.

“They’re here to win and they don’t care how they do it. But they’re killing the game with performances like Sunday’s. They are so bloody boring.”

So wrote Russell Fairfax, a former Australia back, of England’s performances in the 2003 World Cup and he was far from the only member of the Antipodean press to have a negative view of England’s tactics. But the more Sir Clive Woodward’s team was criticised, the closer the English public took them to their heart. They were our “white orcs on steroids”.

Not so this team. The boos told a story. So did the 5,000 empty seats in Nice. So did the 30,000 ones in the final warm-up game against Fiji at Twickenham when the All Blacks sold out the same stadium against the Springboks the night before.

Fundamentally, a supporter’s relationship with his or her team has changed over the past 20 years. Before a fan would offer unconditional loyalty and be grateful for a win of any description. Now it feels victory is no longer enough. You have to win with style.

Not so long ago, entertainment was merely an unnecessary by-product of winning. In tennis in the 1990s, Andre Agassi won five grand slam titles as the flamboyant showman while his great rival Pete Sampras, whose serve-volley tactics scarred a generation’s retinas, won 12. Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United side, the “great entertainers”, won precisely nothing while the “1-0 to the Arsenal” of George Graham lifted six major trophies.

George Graham and Tony Adams
Arsenal win their second league title under George Graham in 1991, seemingly one of the templates for England's approach to this Rugby World Cup - Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock

Somewhere along the line the paradigm shifted. Now not only was it possible to win and entertain but it came to be expected. Roger Federer redefined the expectations of what a great tennis champion could accomplish. So too, in their distinct styles, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp of the type of football played in the Premier League.

Now supporters don’t just hope their teams win in style but, particularly via the medium of social media, come to demand it. Only serial winners such as the Chelsea-era Jose Mourinho are immune from in-house criticism. Loyalty now has certain strings attached.

At the start of this World Cup cycle, Eddie Jones – whatever happened to him? – set England the target of being “remembered as the greatest team that ever played rugby.” Over the past four years, England have mainly fallen between the two stools of entertainment and winning. Right now with the knockout stages within tantalising reach, England should be happy that they are perched precariously on one stool after one too many pints.

Later in the film, Proximus tells Maximus to “win the crowd”. This England team seems intent on ignoring that advice, which is all well and good, but we also know what happens to losing gladiators.