I watched Ireland’s fascinating opening Six Nations clash with England in Dublin – a great game by any yardstick – on television yesterday at a family gathering in the country.
As other Rust correspondents have pointed out, rugby union is in a strange place.
With elite players 10% bigger and fitter than they were fifteen years ago – and coaching standards higher than ever – too many games are becoming stultified by playbooks and structural tactics that cancel each other out and reduce scope for injections of flair and invention to create openings and improvisation. Too often – for anyone but committed oficianados – it can become ‘samey’ and frankly (and yes, this is heresy) almost closer to its rugby league counterpart than is healthy.
And yet, as matches like yesterday’s demonstrate, it still retains a capacity for one-off occasions in which factors such as ‘which teams wants it more’ determine the outcome.
Commenting on Ireland’s loss in an on-pitch interview, Murray admitted that the hosts had been out-gunned in terms of dynamism and twice mentioned that as a result “when you’re playing a quality team like England” you get punished.
On one level this was typical modern rugby-verbiage but on another it was telling.
In advance of the game Ireland had every reason to be confident.
They were the defending Six Nations champions. In the past twelve months they had beaten New Zealand twice. They were the reigning international ‘team of the year’ and in Sexton had the ‘world player of the year’ in their fly half slot. They were playing at home, where they have an excellent record, and against the foe that, of all foes, they love to beat.
Under Kiwi head coach Joe Schmidt they have made a virtue of remaining grounded, respectful of the opposition and resolutely immune to pre-match hyperbole.
In short, one might have expected that all the omens were in Ireland’s favour.
The impact of England’s win yesterday will reverberate right through to the Rugby World Cup which begins in September.
It proves – if proof were needed – that at the highest level of the sport nothing but a 10 out of 10 performance will guarantee success and that a strategy of ‘imposing control and strangling the life out of a game’ is not enough.
To use a boxing analogy, when two unbeaten heavyweights with plenty of knockout power contest a world championship belt the best or most effective approach may well be a combination of a gunfighter’s “come out with all guns blazing” and the Iron Duke’s comment to two of his generals as the exchange of artillery fire at Waterloo began: “Hard pounding this, gentlemen – let’s see who can pound the longest …”
Two other observations from me this morning.
The first is on the eternal fickleness of the media, which we sports fans instinctively acknowledge but sometimes lose sight of.
After he took over the job in the wake of the 2015 Rugby World Cup disaster, as expected England head coach Eddie Jones ‘threw all the balls in the air and created chaos’ to such stimulating effect that England ran up a 20 games-plus run of consecutive victories. He became the Messiah.
However, then the wheels came off the chariot somewhat – primary evidence-in-chief being England’s dismal fifth place in the 2018 Six Nations tournament.
Soon there were disturbing allegations doing the rounds that players were being over-trained, becoming susceptible to injury on England duty and that they were so exhausted that they were weak and ineffectual by the time match-day came around. That Eddie didn’t know his best team. That, like Jose Mourinho, Eddie was a prey to ‘third season syndrome’ and had been ‘found out’.
Then some key first choice players returned from long-term injuries and England did far better than expected (not least against the All Blacks) in last November’s autumn internationals.
Now – after yesterday’s impressive demolition of the Ireland juggernaut – suddenly England are back among the favourites to make the Rugby World Cup semi-finals or better.
Eddie Jones is the Messiah again and (of course) knew what he was doing all along.
Sometimes one could be forgiven for regarding the life of a professional scribe is a comparative doddle. Overnight you can contradict everything you’ve been churning out for the past twelve months … and nobody will bat an eyelid!
One was when combative England loose head prop Kyle Sinckler, whose feisty demeanour has often landed him in hot water, had a potentially explosive off-the-ball contretemps with Irish back rower Peter O’Mahoney beyond the touchline. When both were hauled before referee Jerome Garces for a ticking off, Sinckler could be heard on the Garces’s microphone saying “I’m just very excited, tell me to shut up if you need …”
The other is a confession.
Holding forth with supposed expertise in rugby matters in front of the television at one point – when England centre Henry Slade had just made a mess of fielding a high ball – I threw into the mix “The trouble with Slade is that, although he’s a lovely silky performer for Exeter, he’s a bits and pieces player and, despite all his chances, has never dominated a game at international level”.
Not thirty minutes later, after Slade had personally engineered and scored two outstanding tries, I found myself eating humble pie along with my two hot cross buns and cup of tea as the game edged slowly towards its conclusion.