Longform Disappointment: Samoa

In your classic three act story structure, the second act is the part when everything goes a bit tits up.

The first act is for introduction, world building and so forth, combined with the gradual sense of things going well. The story progresses quite nicely along and up, with the hero or heroine or hermaphroditic space lizard generally going towards their goal. The third act is when Zzzlarr the Scaly triumphs and becomes both King and Queen of the Omicron Nebula.

Which leaves the second act. Things can’t be too easy, or else there’s no narrative tension. If the plot simply cruises towards a resolution, there’re no stakes or obstacles to be overcome, no real reason for the audience or reader to get emotionally invested in Zzzlarr’s battle for recognition and equality in an oppressively gendered society.

The classic solution is for things to go wrong somehow. The protagonist suffers some sort of setback, the enemy gains strength and becomes seemingly insurmountable, everything looks a bit more difficult. It’s a bit darker, a bit less triumphal. For the first time, you’re not sure whether the hero’ll come through or not.

Think The Empire Strikes Back, which for these purposes I’m treating as the second act of the Star Wars trilogy. It opens with the Rebellion, the side of good and light and our heroes, being mercilessly crushed. Our heroes are scattered and divided, and spend effectively the whole of the film running from a superior foe and looking for places to hide. The film ends with Han being made into a particularly ugly piece of statuary and Darth Vader looming over an unarmed, distraught Luke, ready to dismember him both physically and emotionally.

Then Darth Vader trips over his big silly cloak, falls onto his lightsaber, topples into that wildly impractical chasm they’re perched atop, and dies. Without his leadership, all the stormtroopers give up and go home. Luke pulls himself up, Han gets defrosted, Rebellion wins. The End.

Except of course that’s not what happens. Return of the Jedi is the victorious third act, when all the good guys pull through and everything comes to a satisfying conclusion after the darkness of the previous film. Narrative arcs like that are what make a story feel satisfying, finished.

Sport doesn’t give a shit for your satisfaction, though. A representative conversation from my watching Scotland’s tooth-grindingly close win over a Samoa team that seemed to spend their three previous games openly on strike[1]:

“David, is your back OK?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t it be?”

“You haven’t really sat down, you keep standing up and moving around.”

“I’m just pacing.”

“Ah.”

/pause while we watch Scotland concede again.

“Fair enough.”

It was that sort of game. If we’re talking narrative arcs, Scotland managed to skip the first act altogether and go straight to the unrelenting grind. Either Vern Cotter’s never read a book before[2] or he’s a fan of really bloody horror films, the kind where people get dismembered and mutilated in increasingly cruel and desperate ways.

All I’m saying is that when Scotland’s pre-Six Nations camp location is announced to be some old wooden hostel in rural Poland, don’t act like I didn’t warn you.

To get back to something approaching the topic, Samoa played like Darth Vader. They were bigger and stronger and cleverer and faster and seemingly invincible. Every breakdown they had was quicker, every time they had the ball they were making ground, every time they threw it wide there was space for their impossibly large backs or quick forwards to run into. They even looked like they’d acquired some limited force powers, from the way they were pushing off Scottish tacklers.

Samoa regathered their first three kickoffs. They got in behind Scotland and used quick ball to run round the defence, then just as we were getting back into position, ran over us. It was at this point that I was moving from incredulity to acceptance on the stages of grief. This is what happens to Scotland, after all.

Samoan players who, in their previous games, had been giving away penalties as if they wanted to be sent off, because come on, they’ve got better shit to do than this whole world cup nonsense, suddenly became disciplined, unstoppable doom machines. Samoa was looming over Scotland, lightsaber poised.

Then they caught themselves on their ludicrous capes and fell flat on their faces. Repeatedly. First, Tommy Seymour had a try basically handed to him, then half the Samoan team decided to stay in the changing rooms for the second half (or at least it felt like it).

And even then, Scotland were still stuck in the second act of their particular uplifting sport documentary. They played as if the plot twist was that half the Samoan team was Scottish qualified through their Ayrshire grannies, so all the points they scored actually counted for us. The third act, the emergence of a fully formed, ascendant Scotland team that had come through the trials of the first half and would now lay waste to all before them, never came.

It could be worse, of course. I mean, we did win. The team barely squeaked through, with not so much satisfaction as relief, but at least we made it out of the pool. Failing to do so wouldn’t have been nearly as embarrassing as the richest country with the most players going out of their own tournament, but at least they were in a tough group.

The issues that I’ve been moaning about to anyone who’ll listen for months (defence, back row, centres) were still there, and are definitely going to be ruthlessly exposed by Australia in the quarter final. If there’s a narrative role to be had, Scotland’s is probably going to be that of a minor character who gets killed off in the second act to demonstrate that shit just got real. Which, thinking about it, is probably right. We’re going to be absolutely slaughtered on Sunday.

But then, narratives mean bugger all in sport, so what the hell do I know?

[1] Which, yeah, fair enough. Is it too much to ask that the players actually get a fair portion of the hundreds of millions of pounds they generate rather than it all going into executive’s blazer pockets?

[2] Something I wouldn’t put past him. The face he wears while coaching is the face of a man who has never known joy.

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