Yesterday’s 12-11 England victory against South Africa at Twickenham was an example of international rugby union at its best, a no quarter-given epic between two sides with a chance of being quarter-finalists or better at next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.
This was a nail-biting slog in the trenches in which one side dominated territory and possession – at least until the game broke up in the second half as the other raised the tempo – and the result went right down to the wire before England squeezed out the win via four penalties, three by Owen Farrell and one by Elliot Daly, to two pens and an unconverted try.
As hinted above the match highlighted the dichotomy troubling the soul of professional rugby as it seeks to develop its global reach in a 21st Century world in which instant gratification and entertainment are kings.
For old-fashioned purists it epitomised the sport’s highest virtues: let me characterise them as those required of two nations going into battle, or even a war – i.e. a stirring mix in which collective effort, team spirit, leadership, determination, ‘bottom’ (courage) and digging deep, even just a refusal to surrender, all play their part.
In contrast, the very aspects that engage rugby fanatics – the ebb and flow of fortunes, the different tasks of the forwards and backs, the gradual wearing down of the opposition, the complexities of the laws and tactics, the individual flashes of inspiration or indeed of graft at the bottom of a pile of players – may be lost upon new or non-rugby-steeped onlookers whose primary ‘introductory grab’ will naturally tend to be every sports’ fundamental one, viz. a great piece of individual play, or indeed team work, that leads directly to a notch on the scoresheet.
For ‘newbies’ or non-fanatics, the notion that an 80-minute clash ending 12-11 may be hailed as a far greater match than another boasting a score of 46-29 may be perplexing.
Although Eddie Jones sets great store in talented midfielders Ben T’eo and Henry Slade – the first a heavy-duty impact player, the second a silky playmaker – I’ve got to be honest, neither have struck me as being of lasting international quality.
T’eo is a magnificent physical specimen who can break tackles and power like a good ‘un up a Route One channel. And he did well on the 2017 Lions tour. Yet – faced with big hard-nosed international defenders – more often than not he gets stopped in his tracks, as was demonstrated again and again yesterday.
I’m saddened by my verdict on Slade because three years ago, as he began knocking on the door of England selection, I was a big fan and predicted he would be a huge star with a lengthy international career ahead of him.
Thirteen caps later he has still yet to take a game against any of the world’s top eight nations by the scruff of the neck. Some greats take to international rugby to the manner born, or a duck to water – the Exeter man seems to be treading the latter.
He was recently slated for deliberately goading opposition players in a Premiership match – something which may be creeping into the modern game, but in my view undoubtedly an ungentlemanly thing to do – and yesterday (he might have called this ‘playing to the edge’) he gave away far too many penalties and at one point spent 10 minutes on the naughty step for his troubles.
There was a general ‘It’s a changing of the guard’ theme running in the media last week as the news broke of veteran (now 33) Mike Brown’s dropping from the England match-day 23, and the ‘Elliot Daly at 15’ experiment being given another outing.
In taking the high ball and straight, head-on, defending – the areas in which Brown excels as a full back – Daly was again found well, if not wanting, then distinctly second best.
Under pressure on three occasions he dropped or was unable to take the high ball. And on two occasions when facing a one-on-one tackle situation he was easily brushed aside.
That said, his siege-gun left boot always secured big touch-finders when called upon and, on the occasion that Farrell acknowledged his range limit and asked Daly to take a penalty shot from the half-way line, his attempt sailed majestically between the posts with pleasingly little apparent effort required.
As for the co-captains, I’m afraid I still don’t ‘get’ Eddie Jones’ persistence with Dylan Hartley. Though he was talked up by the Sky pundits, for me he had little more than a mediocre impact upon the match.
Farrell is without doubt a world-class operator and kicker and a strong character to boot.
However, he lacks what I’d call ‘class’ – and not in a ‘them and us’ or toff’s sense.
He’s consistently chippy, provocative and – with his (let’s charitably call it a ‘no arms tackle’) upon André Esterhuizen well into overtime – almost, and perhaps should have, lost England the match at the death.
In a novel departure, Aussie referee Angus Gardner (who had already blown the whistle to end the match) called a halt to proceedings in order to consult with the TMO official.
Having viewed the tape, he concluded nothing was awry and blew his whistle once more.
To honest with you – having watched the same video sequence that Garner did several times – it was an absolutely nailed-on case of a ‘no arms ‘tackle that should have resulted in the awarding of a yellow – if not red – card to Farrell and penalty to South Africa, which Pollard might easily have potted.
For those that might be interested or wish to form their own opinion, here is the video that the referee, TMO – and indeed I – viewed several times yesterday, courtesy of – YOUTUBE
The newspaper reports this morning says that the match adjudicator has until 5.00pm UK time today to decide whether to cite Farrell.
Whether he does or not, in my view it is not just Maro Itoje that Eddie Jones needs to have a chat with about self-control and discipline.