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A damp squib at Twickenham

And so rugby union’s Northern Hemisphere annual autumn international season has begun with the ‘old’ Five Nations teams all in a state of transition ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup rapidly coming into view over the horizon.

Here’s my snapshot.

Wales are currently trying to blood new players and play a new, more expansive, game but yesterday came second best to the swiftly-improving Australia. As things stand now, I cannot see the Principality progressing beyond the quarter-finals in 2019.

France have been all over the place because three seasons ago the French Federation ceded control of their players to their elite clubs. Unless they get that situation sorted I cannot see them doing well in the 2018 Six Nations, let alone the next RWC. That said, with the French sometimes anything can happen.

Scotland have got the wind in their sails and new coach, the impressive Gregor Townsend, will enjoy a honeymoon period in the coming Six Nations. They’ve got a useful mix of ‘mercenary quasi-Scots’ and new youngsters coming together but they need more structure and alternative plan options than were on show during the Keystone Cops-style mayhem of yesterday’s 44-38 win over the financially bankrupt Samoa.

Ireland are flying high and their current crop of vets and new players might just hold together long enough to make a considerable impact at the 2019 RWC.

I’m a big fan of Joe Schmidt, their Kiwi coach.

They’ve deservedly beaten New Zealand, England and now South Africa in the past fifteen months and clearly the game not to miss of next spring’s Six Nations will be England v Ireland at Twickenham.

And as for England – well they’re like the proverbial curate’s egg at the moment (“good in parts”).

Inevitably I get a bellyful of their excitements and woes domestically and yesterday it was my lot to be in charge of the family lunch in advance of settling down in front of the television to watch what Him Indoors was confidentially expecting to be a comfortable and impressive victory over Argentina.

For descriptions of the game, I recommend Rusters read their Sunday newspaper of preference.

Journos like Eddie Jones, England’s coach, because he’s a brash Aussie who’s been around the block, gives good copy and excels at creating excellence out of chaos by constantly challenging his staff and playing squads.

If you believe the hype, he’s a hardworking genius whose key purpose is send his players out on the field confident enough to be able to think on their feet in the heat of battle.

My underlying concern is that – going back over a long and varied career – he’s had about as many failures as successes.

The entire England camp had talked up yesterday’s game as the first of twelve important staging posts (matches) on the way to the 2019 RWC.  It was an opportunity – through both injury and Eddie Jones choice – to rest important players and try some new ones.

In the event it was a dire, disappointing performance that exposed a raft of England’s pretensions for what they are.

Two who advanced their cause amongst the dross were Nathan Hughes at Number 8 and open-side flanker Sam Underhill. Few others, apart from perhaps the workhorse Chris Robshaw and Mako Vunipola, stood out.

Fly-half George Ford was unimpressive kicking from the tee when he needed to be immaculate in the absence of the rested Owen Farrell.

Biggest disappointment was Exeter’s classy Henry Slade, being tried out at 12 (inside centre).

I’m sorry, but for the past five years (since he was 19) he’s been heralded as ‘the future’ but he’s only played a handful of games for England – partly due to a serious leg break that took him an age to recover from. This was his big chance to prove his worth – in advance Eddie Jones had even called it his ‘audition’ – but on yesterday’s evidence he fluffed it.

This is how it is for ‘bright young things’ in international rugby.

Some are ‘to the manor born’: from the moment the first whistle blows in their debut game, it’s plain as a pikestaff that they are not just in their element but already influencing the course of a game it as if they’ve been at this level for years.

Others take four or five matches before they ‘find their feet’. These guys can often end up being as good as – if not better than – the first category mentioned. In international sport, if players are not developing game by game then they’re standing still (which actually means ‘going backwards’) and this can happen to a ‘natural’ just as much as it can to someone who has to work hard to get to the top.

Yesterday Slade looked the part but he took twenty minutes to get into the game and throughout ‘overplayed’, that is to say every time he got the ball it seemed he was trying to go for ‘the money shot’ – and, most often, they didn’t come off.

At least half a dozen times he either ended by passing the board forward and/or straight into touch.

In contrast, Alex Lozowski (who came on to play at 12 when Slade as moved to 13 to replace the shepherd-hooked Jamie Joseph) played a 20-minute cameo that included a scintillating midfield solo break. Overall, he put Slade in the shade.

I was once a big Slade fan – and that was nothing to do with the fact he’s a good-looking boy I promise(!) – but yesterday he was shown up. I don’t doubt he has all the physical attributes and silky skills to have a long career at the highest level save one, the ‘international class’ mentality.

Yesterday the media was awash with ‘This is Slade’s big chance’ build-up speculation.

His problem was that he believed it and tried to play as if it was. It didn’t work.

England were poor yesterday. Less ‘the second-best team in the world moving inexorably towards a RWC Final showdown with the All Blacks’ than an experiment that didn’t come off, a wasted opportunity to maintain momentum on the path they wish to travel.

There are times when the Twickenham crowd is roused to rarely-matched spine-tingling roaring enthusiasm but yesterday the low-key, under-par, dull-as-dishwater fare left the cathedral of English rugby about as subdued as if there’d been a death in the family.

No wonder that as one point Eddie Jones got so exercised at his vantage point in the stand that he swore and threw away his pencil!


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