England Lay Down the Gauntlet in Australia


Some years ago my family and I had the great pleasure of meeting Nelson Mandela, who among many things was responsible for one of the most iconic sporting moments in history, wearing the Springbok rugby shirt before the 1995 World Cup Final, thus uniting a nation.

South Africa won that day and many attributed their against-the-odds win versus the All Blacks to that moment of true leadership. He has also been responsible for many great statements about the realities of life, particularly dealing with adversity. ”It’s not about whether you fail, but how you respond when you do.”

After England’s wonderful triumph over the Wallabies on Saturday, Chris Robshaw the former captain echoed Mandela’s famous comment – “In Life and Sport, you have setbacks to deal with. It’s about how you respond. You are always trying to reach the top, and if you don’t succeed you dust yourself off and go again. It’s the only way .”

This from a man who lost the captaincy after the World Cup exit, was pilloried by the press and public and thought he may never play again for his country. While the plaudits for England’s win went to Haskell, who like wine is getting better with age, as well as Itoje – again – I thought Robshaw had his best ever game for England. Hints of running lines, great passing and a crucial turnover or two when England were on the rack. And believe me they were.

I had highlighted previously how England should beware the Flying Folau, playing at outside centre as well as full back for his province. If they had planned a defence for him I couldn’t see it as he terrorised England out wide. Had it not been for two critical turnovers and a TMO decision which could have gone the other way, as well as a bad kicking day for Foley, then England would have been thirty points down and buried. Instead they hauled themselves back into the match with typical Saracens-like bloodymindedness. Farrell’s eagle eyed kicking was a dagger to Aussie hearts who were dragged into a game they didn’t want. Moore, their Captain, complained about England slowing the ball down but couldn’t influence the French referee who started to penalise the Australians mercilessly, and they quite simply panicked.

Previous England teams have gone to Australia and been highly competitive but unable to deal with the hostile atmosphere on and off the field. Eddie Jones knew how to deal with the latter, especially after the airport customs officials went through his personal possessions, presumably looking for team tactics. After all, he has handed it out himself when Australia’s coach. On this tour he has been on the front foot with the press who have tried unsuccessfully to unsettle him. Tactically he advertised that England would be brutal in their playing style, but actually it was two moments of consummate skill from the under-fire Ford which ultimately won the match. Let us not forget, class is permanent. Was Jones’s replacement of Burrell for Ford a masterclass in double bluff? We will never know but Jones’s bland response that he has to do what is good for the team echoed deafeningly into the faces of dithering and prevaricating predecessors.

What I like about England is their mental development and new found leadership. Did you see Itoje’s constant verbal reinforcement for England’s good moments, and celebrating briefly when an attack was foiled. Farrell has a new calmness about him and Joseph moved his game up a notch, I thought. Haskell made 18 tackles and even showed a sidestep to embarrass a few three quarters, and Australia will understand how far they fell short when they reflect on his dominance.

Finally, back to that opening thirty minutes. Jones knows that England were lucky and that they won’t escape again like that and then be gifted penalties and a soft try. I estimate a thirty point turn around in that first half. Maybe neither side ultimately played well but Jones is right, the improvement is more likely to come from England in the playing sense. However, coolness under pressure, dealing with adversity, self belief and leadership from within the team – these are qualities which are developing nicely.

Meanwhile, Maro Itoje has yet to lose a match of any sort in 2016, which is some statistic, but if he wants to see where he could get to in the years to come as a player then he should watch a video of Brodie Retallick for New Zealand. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes to see his skills in every aspect of the game all round the pitch against Wales. Simply awesome.

THOUGHT OF THE WEEK

The Irish eyes will be smiling after their near second string squeezed a 14-man victory over South Africa. Traditionally we would all be hiding behind the sofa to imagine the Springbok response this coming weekend. Have they lost their ‘aura’ as was suggested in the SA press. We shall soon find out, and whether they can adhere to that Mandela principle and bounce back from adversity.