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Time to examine the entrails

Well, the England rugby team plugged a hole and managed to end their five-match losing stretch in a water-logged Newlands stadium in Cape Town yesterday with a necessarily-laboured 25-10 victory over the South Africa despite deservedly losing the series 1-2.

This leaves the callow Springboks squad, as they head for the Southern Hemisphere’s Rugby Championship, a nose in development/momentum terms ahead of Eddie Jones’ England for next year’s Rugby World Cup.

Rassie Erasmus had switched enough of his team to unintentionally assist the visitors’ desperate attempt to win the last game of the series at any cost.

The Boks’ starting 10 Elton Jantjies had a shocker which ended ignominiously with an application of the shepherd’s hook (in favour of top Springbok fly-half Handre Pollard) shortly into the second half which was probably as big a relief to Jantjies as it was to every South African watching.

Given the state of the weather it was hard to judge where the game leaves England. A win is a win but in this case that’s all it was.

The pack played its best game of the tour – or was allowed to do so in the conditions and against a lesser opposition unit – but is left facing several question marks.

They had been beaten up and barely registered at the breakdown in the first two tests.

Wasps’ Number 8 Nathan Hughes has been tearing up trees in the Premiership for a couple of seasons now but at international level – compared to the monster than is Billy Vunipola as a ‘go forward in the hard yards’ runner – he’s a lightweight.

Yesterday, as ever, he invariably got thumped back five yards every time he went into contact. Time for Eddie to look elsewhere, methinks.

I know my Rust colleague Derek Williams is considering throwing in the towel on covering the fortunes of the Harlequins [don’t’ do it, Derek!] but he could be proud of both Quins props’ performances yesterday.

Joe Marler, deputizing for the now back home (weary) Mako Vunipola, added a degree of heavyweight grunt on the loose head that helped splinter the Boks’ front five in the second half, whilst on the tight-head Karl Sinckler not only stood rock-firm in the scrum but was also conspicuous in trucking the ball up like only he can.

Probably heeding a pre-match hairdryer blast from Jones and forwards coach Steve Borthwick, it was notable that unusually neither into any trouble with the referee.

In fact, discipline was a key factor in England’s win. After two tests with a penalty count closer to 20 than 10 – the max that received opinion tells us a winning international team ever concedes – yesterday England gave away only 7 penalties, far less than the Boks.

The impact of Danny Cipriani’s return as starting 10 – exactly ten years after his debut in the position – was, as I expected, a moot point.

Those who worship at his altar would probably admit that he played a peripheral role in the game but then go on to point to his one touch of genius – the pin-point diagonal kick ahead that enabled jet-heeled Jonny May to beat the defenders and touch the ball down inches from the corner flag that took England out of sight minutes before the final whistle.

Those who are Danny Boy agnostics or atheists (like me) would continue to assert ‘case unproven’. I’m not denying he’s a flair player, I’m just saying that in my opinion he’s a luxury one. When the mood takes him and the game situation is in his favour he can look a million dollars. At all other times he’s average.

Plus – and some rugby scribes have hinted at this – he and current England captain Owen Farrell are like chalk and cheese.

I’m afraid that Farrell in not my kind of team captain.

Nor for that matter was Chris Robshaw. They both lack charisma and ‘class’ (in the character, not socio-economic grouping, sense).

My brother once attended an England v Italy Six Nations game – and then the VIP dinner afterwards – as the guest of an RFU big-wig. And so it came to the captains’ speeches. Yeoman toiler Robshaw (few have ever made more of their talents by sheer hard work and effort) went first, mumbling stereotype ‘speak your weight’ sporting interview guff.

Then came Italy’s Sergio Parisse, striding to the podium like a Roman senator/god.

On behalf of his team he graciously thanked the RFU from top to bottom including the waiting staff, congratulated England upon their win and spoke for seven or eight minutes with everyone eating out of his hand.

Now there was a real man – someone who could inspire anyone he came across, never mind a member of his team.

In similar mode I would point to Australia’s John Eales (nicknamed ‘Nobody’ by his team mates, because ‘nobody’s perfect’).

Not only was he one of the outstanding locks of all time, he was a giant on and off the field as well – a big character who had a gift for striking just the right note in every speech or interview.

And then, of course, you’d have to add to the list the great All Black Richie McCaw who, even on the rare occasions New Zealand got beaten, first always paid his opposition fulsome praise and respect before being modest about his own team’s performance.

He played 148 test matches for New Zealand and was the first player in history to play in over 100 test match wins during his fifteen year international career, during which he spent nine years as captain.

Owen Farrell, a strong character filled with world-class playing genes courtesy of his father Andy, captains like he plays – uncompromising, confrontational, blunt – but he has no light and shade, no consideration of which of his players respond to the carrot and which to the stick.

His post-match interviews are short, tending to the monosyllabic, and myopic. However, It’s early days yet – he’s only two matches into his England captain career – so maybe he’ll improve.

Getting back to my point – Farrell and Cipriani are poles apart both in outlook and the way they play.

It isn’t necessary for team-mates to be friends, of course, but if you asked me I’d hazard a guess that Farrell has little time for Cipriani off the field … and probably on it as well.

Cippers is just not Farrell’s type of person.

Watching yesterday’s game, I felt the body language between the two spelled this out in spades.

About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts