First things first – a hearty salute to Scotland, who impressively defeated Canada 48-10 in Edmonton in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Meanwhile the traditional travails of France, England and Ireland upon their annual summer pilgrimages to the Southern Hemisphere continue in what is now pre-Rugby World Cup year.
Ireland, deserved 2018 Six Nations champions, had their colours lowered by Australia
France, after a match in which the performance of English referee Luke Pearce came under critical scrutiny because of his yellow cards given (against France) and not given (against New Zealand for a double-hit tackle on French winger Remy Grosso by Sam Cane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi that left him with a cheekbone broken in two places – some observers asserting that this incident merited not a yellow but a red card), succumbed to a 52-11 thrashing.
Lastly England – in what was one of the most thrilling internationals I’ve witnessed in several seasons – were pipped 42-39 at the high altitude Ellis Park, temple of South African rugby, by the Springboks on Saturday afternoon after running out to an early 24-3 lead.
Some UK rugby journalists were quick to pile the pressure on England head coach Eddie Jones by pointing out that his much-vaunted team – after a dismal Six Nations – had now lost five on the bounce (“No we haven’t,” was the gist of the Australian’s response, “… the Barbarians match doesn’t count”).
The cause of the defeat was probably something to do with the altitude – received opinion has it that South African got their preparation right and England got theirs wrong – but also the fact that the home side began bossing the breakdown, upped their tempo, played well and consequently ran England ragged.
There’s no getting round the fact that England had the match won after twenty minutes and should have at the very least closed it out – and arguably put on a 30 point margin if they’d managed to remain in control. But they ran out of puff, began making poor decisions under pressure and gave away far too many unnecessary, stupid, penalties.
Things are tough for the England camp at the moment. Nobody doubts Eddie Jones’ quality as a world class coach but firstly, he has a reputation for making a big impact when he arrives in a job and then always making a Horlicks of it at some later point; and secondly, he thrives upon putting everyone around him under immense pressure (because he does that to himself) and at the moment maybe what some England squad members need is a little TLC and somewhat softer man-management.
Already the sages are pointing out that there’s an energy and tempo gap between Southern Hemisphere rugby and the European version. What they really referring to is the Southern Hemisphere’s emphasis upon ‘attack’. For too long, probably due to the excellence of the rugby league coaches transplanted into international rugby union, European rugby has been built primarily upon defence, this on the theory that ultimately defence wins you matches.
It doesn’t, of course. Don’t get me wrong, it matters … but what wins you matches is scoring 1 more point than the opposition, not stopping the other side from doing so.
Take the NZ v France game, which I did not see myself. Once I knew that France had lost a man to the sin-bin – and the All Blacks, who might also have had, didn’t – the result was inevitable.
The opposition goes a man down … they up their game and take the opportunity to score a hat-full of points.
But if they go down a man?
The answer is simple – they work out how to deal with it, e.g. play with increased intensity and/or ‘slow the game down’ to use up the 10 minutes they have to spend with their man off the pitch. They barely have to think about it – it’s in-bred.
When South Africa began their magnificent fight-back on Saturday, sustained between minutes 20 and 70 of the match, England had little answer beyond effort – and effort was not enough when the athleticism and verve of key Springbok outfield players held the ascendancy.
Before the tour began in earnest there was a spat between Eddie Jones and Bruce Craig, owner of Bath Ruby. Craig complained bitterly that Jones was over-training his squad and returning Premiership players to their clubs crocked too often for it to be coincidence.
Jones spat back that his job was preparing England players for international rugby, but (of course) that Craig wouldn’t understand that.
Jones may have had a point.
There’s a view abroad that Southern Hemisphere players benefit from playing in the Premiership – picking up uncompromising forward play and graft – without losing their attacking mentality … whereas the likes of England, who make such a virtue of ‘forward grunt’, don’t have the ability to match Southern Hemisphere sides when play breaks up and chaos reigns.
As a Scot, I’m not among those who are already writing England – or even Ireland – off after their first Test matches on tour. Next weekend will be quite another matter as everyone tries to work out what happened last time and then change their teams and tactics in readiness for Round Two.