It is tough to add more words of praise to those already lavished onto the stellar performances last weekend of the England first team, not to mention the Saxons and U 20s, who have managed to match their senior squad success. After many years of frustration for the English, recent results feel like more than just temporary relief and could signal, at last, a sustainable shift in World Rugby dominance.
For some years now, the Sanzar nations have been secretly smirking at England’s seemingly masochistic and self-inflicted underperformance. They all knew that if England could marshal their exceptional financial and player superiority, then it spelt bad news. Ireland and Wales have also been playing a gleeful game of smash and grab from the dozy English playground bully in the Six Nations back yard. France could have joined in but have elected to have their own tussle in a separate corner and that won’t play out for a while yet.
If I sound flippant, that is intentional. You have no option but to poke a little ironic fun in England’s direction because the truth behind their thirteen years of drought is as depressing as it was avoidable. The good news for all those supporting the Red Rose is that this outbreak of hard-earned success is likely to continue.
I have always said that behind every corner is a good England side. Make some good selections, get your tactics right and inject some self-belief and hey presto. Many years ago a rampant and world class Scottish team came to Twickenham hunting the Championship and the Triple Crown against an England team who had lost all their matches and had six players banned for foul play including the Captain. We hammered them. Anyone remember the year?
With all that preamble, let’s look a little closer.
George Ford said post match it was one of those games where it was better not to have the ball. So true, and you definitely measure a side by how they play without the ball. It was one of Bath’s great strengths in their halcyon years. In addition, England were hurt by the humiliating breaches in their defence from the First Test. Paul Gustard, the defence coach, didn’t just read them a telling poem about looking in the mirror, he told them some home truths about International defence. 213 tackles later…
A shocking Melbourne pitch didn’t help the Wallabies’ running capabilities – a bit like the West Indian cricket groundsman preparing a slow turner when your battery of pace bowlers are primed and ready. Firm ground would have made huge difference, as would the presence of any number of their missing playmakers; six of them either injured or unavailable elsewhere in the world. A quite dreadful performance by Phipps at 9 dislocated Aussie timing out wide, and once England had plugged the ‘Folau gap’, you know the rest.
This is not to understate the importance of this England win. Self-belief, collective will to defend their line. The leadership was evident from the team itself – no hollering from Itoje this time or fist pumping confidence boosters, just a grim determination to make the tackles and get the win on the back of their new found clinical ability to take chances. Eddie called for it and this team delivered. On another day it won’t be enough, but you deal with what is in front of you. Many said that the 1997 Lions were lucky in SA and indeed the Springboks were the better attacking team – so what, look in the book!
What has Jones done? Got personal for a start, with his key men, giving them that self-belief. Backed them publicly without being patronising. Told them what was wrong before – no winning mentality, hiding behind a culture and quoting team ethics as an excuse for losing and that we had to look long term. No doubt he read back to them some of the meaningless column inches they peddled out over the last few years to make his point. Stepped in and played rough with the tough Aussie media. He has a wicked sense of humour, developed over the years on his global rugby adventure. By all accounts he is obsessive and one-tracked in his pursuit of rugby success and he has suffered adversities by the bucketload so he knows some perspective.
All of this resonates with a squad of players who increasingly reflect those qualities and his character is drip feeding quietly into their rugby bloodstream. English rugby needed some luck, and he was the only man available post the World Cup but just the man England needed.
The touch paper is lit, and we now wait to see the extent of the ambition this weekend. I said that he dreamt of a 3-0 but it is now a waking reality.
Finally, nothing would be more dramatic than a first ever series win by the Irishmen against the Springbok green and gold. Like Australia, they have been caught cold and only just survived in the second Test. Both these final matches will be tumultuous, with pride at stake and an awful lot more as the Northern Hemisphere start the fightback – with New Zealand at the pinnacle some distance away but not out of sight.
THOUGHT OF THE WEEK
What an effort by Spain to reach the finals of the Rio Olympic Sevens, and beating Samoa to boot, one of the world’s better sevens playing nations. Talking of Spain, the Top 14 Final between Racing 92 and Toulon is taking place on Friday evening in Barcelona’s Nou Camp. A world record of 98,000 people is expected. What an event and a sign of the exceptional popularity of top Club Rugby in Europe. For rugby as a sport, to be growing so fast in Spain and other parts of the world can only add to the global attraction of this great game.