It’s January, and for people as fond of being slightly miserable as I am (I’m an Ospreys fan, it goes with the territory), that means only one thing: Oscar season. Cinemas are drenched with vaguely-upsetting films based on inspiring true-life stories. We all know the sort: The Swedish wheat farmer who loved their wife so much he took up handgliding. The bipolar war hero who invented crochet. The Portuguese chicken who lead a rebellion against Nandos. Stories unique in their occurrence, but universal in their application. But, for the first time since Invictus proved Clint Eastwood had no idea what a drop goal looked like, this year rugby is featured in the Oscar conversation. For this year marks the release of Steve Spielberg’s latest movie, The Post, based on the true-life story of the time former England fly-half Toby Flood ran into the post.
Incorrectly widely reported as being about the publishment of the Pentagon Papers, The Post stars Tom Hanks on top form as Flood himself. In order to get into character, Hanks spent months working on his hair and narrowly missing conversions. His performance is an absolute revelation, and suggests that he could well go far as an actor if he chooses to stick with it. Opposite Hanks is triple-Academy Award winner Meryl Streep in the titular role of the post. On paper a very lifeless role with a lot of material there as nothing other than padding, Streep manages to breathe an extra dimensions into the part. The cast also includes Breaking Bad star Bob Odenkirk as the ball, and veteran character actors Tracey Letts and Bruce Greenwood as commentators Miles Harrison & Stuart Barnes, in a piece of casting you could describe as ‘inspired’. The Post is being tipped as a contender for the Best Picture Oscar, but faces stiff competition from the likes of Lady Bird (An all-female reboot of the Charlie Parker biopic), Get Out (A terrific movie focusing on the time Christian Wade accidentally turned up for an England training session), Call Me By Your Name (The true story of Epi Taione legally changing his name to Paddy Power for the duration of the 2007 World Cup) and Darkest Hour (A dazzling and timely insight into the mind of a Northampton fan as they found themselves 46-8 down to the Ospreys after 60 minutes).
Now, just a week out from the fifth anniversary of one of the most iconic moments in rugby history and with a film adaptation definitely on the horizon, it’s the ideal time to look back on an amazing moment that experts claim “probably hurt Toby Flood’s shoulder”…
The date is January 13th 2013. It’s Champion’s Cup weekend. Two teams descend on the Liberty Stadium, ready for a winner-takes-all clash for the chance to have a chance at getting out of the group the following week. The two teams had played each other a few months prior, which saw the Ospreys get torn apart by the most eager bunch of Tigers this side of a Frosties advert. The return leg was a lively encounter, end-to-end, with Eli Walker producing a career-best performance and Matthew Tait making three tackles. The game went down to the wire as Leicester lead 15-10 with just minutes to play, when a break from Walker resulted in man of the century Jonathan Spratt scoring in the corner. It’s tribute to just how mediocre a player Jonathan Spratt was that even when he scored the winning try, it only resulted in a draw. The match finished 15-15, and a pundit probably made a disgusting “kissing your sister” remark.
Normally, the quality of the rugby would be the most important function of a rugby match. However, this was no ordinary day, and this was a game defined by no ordinary moment. Just as the clock was about to tick over onto the 71st minute, the Ospreys opt for a risky lineout move on their own five metre line. Throwing long to Joe Bearman stood in the backline, hearts entered mouths as the ball bobbled out of Bearman’s hands. It bounced backwards, towards the try line. Onto the try line. Over the try line. All it would take is an opportunistic Tiger to pounce, and the game is decided.
Unfortunately for the Ospreys, Leicester had that Tiger.
Unfortunately for Leicester, that Tiger was Toby Flood.
A player with a real ability to read the game, Flood sees the move play out before it happens. He shoots up. He knows this moment could decide the game. His opposite number, Dan Biggar, spots Flood coming, and turns desperately to secure the ball. Flood changes his line of running. The ball fumbles across the try line, four players now scrambling after it. Flood can see it. Flood can smell it. Flood is about to score the winning try.
Flood runs into the post. No try is scored.
After a moment to reflect on what happens, Flood gets back up and walks back into position, hands holding arms, seemingly cradling a very thin baby. The look of pain on his face is just strong enough to sell you a half-second of guilt as you chortle your way to YouTube’s ‘Watch Again’ button. The internet contains the near-complete sum of human knowledge, ready for consumption, but there’s only one clip of the then-incumbent England fly-half ricocheting off an inanimate object, at least until George Ford bounces off James Haskell.
It’s no wonder Steven Spielberg wanted to adapt the moment into a feature
film, because it’s as perfect a moment of physical comedy as you’ll ever see. As a single, composed visual gag, it’s genuinely verging on Buster Keaton. The 10-10 scoreline and proximity to the line means the stakes are incredibly high. This moment could decide not just the game, but potentially two teams’ seasons. As such, our eyes follow Flood. We’re invested in the drama, we want to know the outcome, we want to know whether or not he manages to ground the ball. And then, from nowhere, comes the ragdoll slapstick. Flood hits the post, and his whole body crumples. It carves in on itself, almost unnaturally. He goes from running forward at full pelt to bending backwards. That kind of forward-backwards action creates a comic juxtaposition that is visual, instantaneous and incredibly pure. The comic beat is funny because we could, or even should, see it coming, but our investment in the stakes means we don’t. The posts are in shot the entire time. Flood is running in their general direction. The possibility that he could hit them is there. Good joke construction dictates that nothing in the punchline is new, or cheated, but constructed from the elements we already have. The rugby gods (Or at least the Sky Sports director) has given us the ingredients of the joke from the beginning, in shot the entire time. The only element that isn’t in frame from the lineout-offset is Flood himself, who enters already at top speed, raising the stakes even further. The joke plays out with tensions high, allowing for a bigger laugh. The more it’s needed, the greater the comic relief. Life doesn’t often throw you moments of such pure comedy, but when it does, you have to watch them on YouTube at least once a month and laugh at a man who seemed to seriously hurt his shoulder’s expense.
It’s undoubtedly an amazing moment, but there was a big question mark over how Spielberg was going to keep the film engaging for two hours when the moment itself lasted mere seconds. The same question hung over last year’s Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, also starring Tom Hanks, who seems to be building a real niche. However, Spielberg solved this by choosing to delve into the personal history of the post. It’s a remarkable story. Growing up in New York City, the tall lump of metal had dreamt of being a rugby post ever since she saw a clip of Gareth Edwards scoring against one on TV. However, the post was unanimously told this simply isn’t an option. This is New York. A long lump of metal like her has two choices: ladder, or a drainpipe. The bulk of the film plays out as the inspirational true story of how she went on to prove everyone wrong, and become one of the most famous posts in rugby history. Using the CGI youngface technology rom the start of Ant-Man that de-aged Michael Douglas to looked like Michael Douglas rather than a melting waxwork of himself, Streep plays the post at all ages. It’s amongst her most startling performances, and a fourth Oscar at this point feels like a formality.
Seeing rugby receive this kind of Hollywood treatment is a real step forward for Brett Gosper and those hoping to see the game ‘Break America’. And for cinemagoers, it’s great to see a moment of such levity celebrated amongst the stack of films we admire more than love. The film may circle in one the post, but really, there was one man who made this all possible. Toby Flood, if you’re reading this, I just want to say thank you. Your blitzed arm was worth it for the joy it brought to so many other people, and the thousands more who will discover it thanks to Steven Spielberg’s remarkable new film.
The Post is released in US cinemas on January 12th, one day before the fifth anniversary of Toby Flood running into the post, and in the UK the following week.