Ten years without a win against South Africa was a misleading statistic and not even the most avid Bok supporter was expecting an upset at a rainy Twickenham last weekend. The conditions were said to be a leveller for the visitors and thank the Lord for that or else a cricket score would have been in prospect. Talking of which, no one is knocking the SA cricket team right now as they put Australia to the sword, but the heartbeat of their sporting culture, Rugby, is in trouble. Having said that, a period of 13 years without success for England only ended last year, so it is all cyclical – isn’t it ?
English rugby is easy on the eye right now, even if they are only in second gear which suits Eddie Jones just fine. No point peaking in the year after the World Cup! Remember Ireland beating England in Jan 2004, as if anyone cared and many of the World Cup Winners were still in a psychological and physical nirvana somewhere, but not at Twickenham.
A lack of availability due to injuries ( Itoje, Kruis, Haskell,Watson etc) has given vital game time for players who would walk into other International teams and so the ingredient of mental superiority continue to build in that England has so much depth of resource they now expect to win every game, a bit like the All Blacks ( ex the Chicago blip).
Strangely the absence of the Kiwi lock forwards was given by some as an excuse. Perhaps they have more of a rebuild ahead of them than we thought.We will see in Dublin – oh to be there……. at the World Rugby Awards dinner the All Blacks were smiling as multiple winners but there was a menace in the smile. They are hurting and will be ready. If Ireland win that one then England in Dublin next year will be unmissable if it wasn’t already.
Building the World Class Template
This has been Eddie’s mantra. You cannot win World Cups without World class operators.Three England players, Farrell, Vunipola and Itoje were shortlisted for player of the Year and are right up there in my and everyone’s book. Mako Vunipola is probably the best prop in World Rugby right now. I want to add Ben Youngs to the list belatedly even though his Dad could probably have run through the gaps left by the tree tall yet porous South African defence.If Jamie George was getting more games I think he would challenge, but the leadership is key and Hartley’s throwing in is peerless. Jones’ challenge is in the wider channels and he is no closer to the answer than was Lancaster yet, but they have to stay fit first and he is clearly building a picture of what he wants rather than chopping and changing.
Finally, the enigma that is George Ford leaves me uncertain and I wonder whether how much further he can go without some peace in his domestic rugby head which is still a challenge. But he is on his day one of the very best in the world and as we saw from Beauden Barrett in Chicago everyone is human!
Getting there …
A Midfield Wonderland in the Making
I like the way England is dealing with the middle part of the field. A bit like the All Blacks, they are making the scrum half more of a playmaker. A pint sized but intelligent pairing of Farrell and Daly did just fine alongside Ford against SA muscle although they will never have an easier ride. Ford ran Daly into traffic to make sure he can cope and yes he can, as we await his searing outside breaks at top level – bad news for Tuilagi and it shows that Ben Te’o may wait a while for a full debut. There are more questions being asked of Joseph now, who needs to add distribution to his known running strength.
Talking of midfields, Robbie Henshaw and Reece Hodge (Aus) have been setting new standards. Add to them Huw Jones who set Murrayfield alight on his debut and reminded me of David Johnston the sensational Scottish flier of yesteryear ( get out the video).We have gone from rags to riches and it is great to see. Wales may not have been encouraging Jamie Roberts to pass the ball much, but they need that vision and he must find it to prolong an illustrious career.
The ‘M’ word is used everywhere in sport these days, and while we wait for England to suffer the inevitable bump in the road – all the best teams do – it won’t be this weekend. As always we hope that the players will stay healthy in the face of Fijian strength and that Nathan Hughes and ‘Roko’ will continue their development against former countrymen. Fiji’s status as Olympic Sevens Gold medallists should be rightly applauded as well as their resilience against overwhelming odds, facing a team who are better resourced than anyone else in World rugby. Momentum continues to build…….