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An evening of televised sport

Yesterday was bathed in warm sunshine – one might suggest surprisingly so given the time of year – and locals and tourists came out in their droves in my part of the metropolis to enjoy the spring-like conditions.

Having decided at the outset to spend my late afternoon and evening watching sport on television, after lunch I took the opportunity to go for a long walk in my local park after lunch in order to blow some air into my tubes before settling in for the long haul.

Life was good.

The sport also had its moments.

First up was the Wales v England Six Nations clash at the Principality Stadium, kick-off 4.45pm, courtesy of BBC1, deservedly won 21-13 by the hosts after a tight, intense and hugely physical contest that nevertheless failed to reach the epic heights anticipated.

Not that a single Welshman will mind that.

The boyos downed their arch-rivals England and in the process notched a new record of twelve successive victories – a figure never matched even in the halcyon days of the late sixties and seventies – and set them fair for this year’s Six Nations title, a possible Grand Slam to boot, and perhaps even unparalleled success at the autumn’s Rugby World Cup.

As Eddie Jones and England lick their wounds over the next fortnight there’ll be plenty of time for reflection and they will need it.

They arrived in Cardiff with a renewed sense of purpose, the favourites tag and momentum – three attributes that should have seen them dominate and dictate the course of play.

Their insipid second 40 minutes can be taken two ways and the outcome of their 2019 RWC campaign – the only one that matters to Jones, as he has stated unflinchingly and repeatedly since he took the reins – may depend upon how they react.

The first is that it was no more than a bad day at the office that will banish any complacency that had been building up and helpfully serve to remind the England set-up – and its fans – of just how much more work needs to be done.

You know the platitude: the odd reverse is nothing more than a blip and, of course, in the wider context what doesn’t kill you will make you better.

If only.

The second it that, despite all England’s ‘sleeping giant’ advantages, born of boasting the wealthiest Northern Hemisphere Union with the most resources and by far the biggest player base, there are some serious and frustratingly historic all-too familiar fault lines running through the national team.

One of rugby union’s key attractions is that its sheer physically has the happy capacity to enable any relatively evenly-matched elite team to beat another on any given day.

The elements of weather conditions, chance, which side ‘tunes’ in to the way the referee is interpreting the laws and/or just takes its opportunities better – even the ebbs and flows of energy and tiredness as they influence what happened on the field – can all contribute to the outcome.

One team may come out and dominate from the outset and then later fade away. Another may have the thin end of the possession-time of the ball by a considerable margin but still ultimately prevail. Doggedness and determination under fire and pressure are characteristics that always count because no rugby game is ever over until the final whistle or the fat lady sings.

All the above may be self-evident to rugby fans but yesterday produced some serious ‘work-ons’ for the England group.

They were missing some ‘first choice’ heavy-duty forwards – but so were Wales and the latter knew that if they didn’t gain parity in the pack in both the set-pieces and loose they were going to lose. So that is where they concentrated, not least with their ‘straight up the middle’ crash-ball and around-the-ruck charges which it seemed England either hadn’t expected and/or fully prepared for.

Their Plan A – the much-vaunted aerial bombardment, imposition of pressure by aggressive defence and playing as much as possible in the opposition half – was misfiring.

And here’s the rub. They didn’t have a Plan B or, if they did, they couldn’t apply it.

Why this happened will be their main source of concern. I blame the captain and leadership group.

Owen Farrell personally had a rare poor game – he fluffed some passes and kicks to touch and he never once ‘took control’, thought things through (or consulted) and then switch the game plan to something else.

This wasn’t exclusively his fault, not was it the first time this has happened to this England group.

Let’s go back a season or so and the notorious home Six Nations game against Italy in which the visitors, playing to the strict letter of the law to an extent that few if any before had appreciated was possible, deliberately stood offside at the rucks and caused England considerable confusion.

That day England were reduced to the spectacle of captain Dylan Hartley and back rower James Haskell politely asking the French referee about the laws, only to receive the blunt response “I’m the referee, not your coach”.

The most telling analysis afterwards came from one of the television pundits – sadly, at this distance I cannot remember which – who skewered England’s naïve performance on the day with the pithy one-liner “The All Blacks would have come up with a solution in five minutes”.

That’s where England’s Achilles heel is right now. For all their physicality and the brilliance of their gilded backs, they still lack the ability to think on the hoof. To be fair, Eddie Jones has referred more than once to the fact that the coaches can prepare the players all they like, but once the game begins it is all up to the latter. And on yesterday’s evidence the England squad are way behind where they should be if RWC success is to be achieved.

Much later – having parted with £19.95 for pay-per-view access to ITV4 – I watched the grudge match clash between former super-middleweight world champion James De Gale and Chris Eubank Jnr at the 02 arena for the discredited IBO version of that title.

Eubank won a unanimous and deserved points decision after twelve rounds of what was a pretty average fight, if I’m being honest.

I’ve never been a De Gale fan. He’s got classy moves all right, but he doesn’t fight like a true ring great. He dips in and out and then holds and spoils, again and again. He used to do this when he was on the way up and he’s doing it now on the way down.

Eubank meanwhile is a second-rate version of his father.

He’d lost his two previous fights at near-world title class coming into this encounter (billed as a retirement bout for one or the other) and he suffers from the fact that the ‘Marmite’ figure of his father leeches around in the background of all his fights playing an Alan Partridge-style parody of himself as the slightly-mad dandy with crackpot opinions on everything.

For this fight, for the first time ever, Junior had hired himself a little-known young American trainer Nate Vasquez and thereby gained himself a game plan: stay smart and pressurise.

And that’s what he did all night long. It was more than enough to see off the annoying and frustrating De Gale, who dabbed and grabbed incessantly from the opening bell.

After twelve rounds of barely-watchable fare – and by now three hours past my bedtime – I wished I hadn’t bothered.




About Tom Hollingworth

Tom Hollingsworth is a former deputy sports editor of the Daily Express. For many years he worked in a sports agency, representing mainly football players and motor racing drivers. Tom holds a private pilot’s licence and flying is his principal recreation. More Posts