This afternoon the Northern Hemisphere (European) autumn international series will kick-off: England play South Africa at Twickenham, Wales play Scotland and Ireland play Italy.
It goes without saying that rugby fans all over the United Kingdom and Eire – let alone our Italian brethren -will be in a state of heightened excitement perhaps tinged by elements of nervous anticipation and anxiety.
Irrespective of the facts, or indeed the opinions of journalists and commentators, the unknown and unexpected factor is an eternal accompaniment to imminent rugby union games.
On any day, in any given weather, the advance wisdom, analysis and predictions of everyone from the seasoned professional to the average Joe Public who has never carried a rugby ball with intent but who is now perched at his window seat in the saloon bar of his nearest pub, can count for everything … and nothing.
It’s a large part of the fascination of the sport.
On the face of it, today England are facing a significant task. With a dozen or more undisputed first team squadders unavailable via retirement, injury, suspension or chance, they face a Springbok 23 growing in confidence and bursting to begin their tour with a resounding victory.
Conventional theory has it that England’s callow pack will succumb to its juggernaut counterpart and – because rugby tradition has it that “the piano-shifters decide who wins the match, the ‘girls’ (i.e. the backs) by how much” – and therefore Eddie Jones and his boys will have a hard day at the office.
However, in rugby as in so many sports, home advantage can count for plenty if the monumental nature of the occasion and the vociferousness of the crowd have their hoped-for impact upon proceedings.
Some die-in-the-wool English cynics complain that the RFU’s massively over-priced Twickenham seats and obsession with corporate hospitality – which leave true hardcore fans sitting at home watching on TV – inevitable produces a ‘lightweight’ crowd whose knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of rugby laws and tactics is tenuous and which tends to spend more time at its comfortable luncheon tables (and bars featuring 50” television screens) than it does in the stands.
To an extent these criticisms are well-founded.
Nevertheless, despite all the above, an international Test match is an international Test match.
For two seasons now, I have never understood his preference for Dylan Hartley as his captain – for much of this period, on form, Hartley has not been the number one choice as hooker for his club, never mind for England.
He’s a good man, but you have to ask why he’s still in the squad at all, especially since (with his chequered history of concussion) he cannot be much further than one more serious head injury from the end of his career.
According to the newspapers yesterday, they haven’t even decided between themselves as to who will lead England out onto the field.
This cannot be a positive thing. Unless, that is, Jones is weeding Hartley out one move at a time (but then why do this at the beginning of the autumn – and against South Africa?).
I can buy Farrell at fly half – it’s a move that needs to be tried again this far out from next September’s Rugby World Cup.
However, for me, despite the logic and their undoubted power and directness, having Ben T’eo at inside centre backed by Manu Tuilagi on the bench is a gamble [and not just because yesterday the latter was ruled out because of yet another injury niggle].
Thanks to injury T’eo himself has just 34 minutes of playing time under his belt this season. Either he’s been pulling up redwood trees by the dozen in England training, or else this is a major gamble. And with Tuilagi now out, if anything should happen to T’eo, then it will be a case of the diminutive George Ford coming on at 10 and Farrell moving to inside centre.
It wouldn’t be my Plan B given the size and aggression of the Springbok back row.
Eddie Jones has made public statements that he’s unfussed by the unavailability of so many first-team veterans, that every injury is someone else’s opportunity, and that he regards this autumn series as a positive development opportunity – in other words, for him, ‘performance’ will matter more than results.
For me, that’s just an example of ‘getting your excuses in early’.
In rugby, all results matter.
A key feature of the eighteen months before England 2003 Rugby World Cup victory in Australia was the fact that Martin Johnson’s team – seasoned, battle-hardened and very rarely changed in personnel – swept all before it, whether it was playing out of its skin or poorly.
After that famous incident Martin Johnson was asked by a TV reporter with what stirring thoughts and motivations he had exhorted his forwards to give every last ounce of their strength and intensity in the most vital scrum of all.
The captain stoically responded “None. I simply told them to get their heads down and push like hell …”
Our boys are going to need a bit of Johnsonian grit if they are to prevail this afternoon.
And probably a bit more next weekend, when the All Blacks come to town.