Yesterday, largely by chance, I watched passages of both the England Lionesses playing their quarter-final clash in the Women’s World Cup being held in Australia and also the men’s England rugby union team playing their second Rugby World Cup warm-up game against Wales in seven days, this time at RFU Twickenham, “live” on television.
In advance I was aware that both matches were taking place but had no expectation of watching the England Lionesses’ outing because domestic planning had produced a schedule in which I would be shopping all morning with The Boss, followed by a social visit to see a lady friend of hers who lives near the sea front at Littlehampton in Sussex.
As events unfolded, however, as we arrived at our destination in Littlehampton, it became apparent that our hostess and partner had already tuned to ITV’s “live” coverage of the England v. Columbia women’s World Cup match on the 72 inch television set that rather dominates their living room and for the first 80 minutes of our visit it featured (sound on mute) in the background as we had tea and biscuits whilst engaging a lively chat-up chat.
For personal reasons – a step-daughter’s partner is a semi-pro signed to a local town’s team – over the past two years I have had some exposure to lower-league women’s football in Sussex and have therefore have gained some appreciate the development of the female version of the game in the UK.
Whilst confessing that, as a male, I retain a certain reticence to make outrageous claims for the quality of women’s football – eighteen months ago I would have held to the view that, on any given day, an Under-18 male youth team could most probably beat any Women’s Super League (“WSL”) club team – I will say this. The quality of the women’s game is coming on in leaps and bounds.
Only last weekend we had been to see a pre-season women’s warm-up game in Bognor Regis, duly won 6-0 by the team that was two leagues above the other. The victors – super-fit, well-organised, highly-skilled, highly-committed and totally dominant – played some delightful one-touch passing football and were well worth a watch by any fan of football, male or female.
Watching the England Lionesses play Columbia yesterday whilst also taking part in a lively social conversation was a similar experience.
For starters, Columbia were no apology for a team themselves – the general standard of play by both teams was excellent and did not suffer in comparison to a men’s game.
Columbia went ahead when a right winger curled in a long-range shot that flew over the despairing outstretched right hand of the England goalkeeper and into the far left top corner.
Thereafter a ding-dong battle ensured that could have ended with victory for either side, England emerging the winners with two neat goals resulting from open play and some tidy finishing by two of the younger players in the squad.
I shall leave it to Rusters who might want to know more to read the sporting page match reports, but the Lionesses will now play in an exciting-in-prospect key (semi-final) match against the hosts Australia.
I would place their prospects of advancing further as genuinely 50:50. Their style of football under Danish coach Sarina Weigman is not the most flair-filled and entertaining but it is efficient, functionable and they seem to have a knack of “finding a way to prevail” which, arguably, is a handy attribute to have.
Having returned home, there was not a great deal of time in which to achieve anything before I made a conscious decision to watch “live” coverage of the men’s England rugby union team match against Wales beginning on Amazon Prime at 5.10pm in advance of kick-off at 5.30pm.
[I should here add a comment here regarding non-main channel coverage of sport. Yesterday – and not for the first time – the Amazon Prime coverage on my television was frustratingly affected by a “fuzzy (pixelated)” picture-quality that detracted from the television-watching experience].
There’s no way of avoiding the fact that so far England under the stewardship of head coach Steve Borthwick have been deeply disappointing, both in their style of play and their results.
Although he took up the post a year early because of the sacking of maverick Aussie Eddie Jones – and some hold to the view that therefore Borthwick has a “free hit” at this year’s Rugby World Cup which begins in France next month – from my viewpoint there’s an essential truth in then old adage that “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it probably is a duck”: sadly Borthwick – for all his intelligence, attention to detail and graft – is just not a great motivator or leader.
The RFU has a long history of mediocre decision-making in every aspect of administering the English game and running its senior international side. Style-wise Borthwick’s appointment comes straight in a direct line from that of the similarly-deficient Stuart Lancaster – both of them good, diligent, guys with everything going for them bar the three key elements that make a great motivator/leader, i.e. vision, flair and the ability to inject the “wow!” factor.
It’s perhaps an unworthy/unfair metaphor to use, but in my view both Lancaster and Borthwick are examples of the “doing it by numbers” sort of guy: they mean well and can “talk the talk” but lack that final extra 10% of what it takes to deliver. Great Number 2’s perhaps, but never genuine ”Main Men”.
Twenty-five minutes into yesterday late afternoon match I was beginning to lose interest in a first half that eventually ended with England 6-0 to the good (two penalties by captain Owen Farrell). The play was dull, dull, dull.
Veteran Wales coach Warren Gatland had thrown down one deck of cards and picked up another – he gave a run-out to 15 different players from the team he’d fielded the previous week.
Meanwhile Borthwick had gone back to the basics – and picked a team built around his efficient but boring “roundheads”, i.e. Saracens players at the core of his team and the remainder devoid of anyone capable of doing anything novel or unexpected. Earnest, hard-working, big on grunt and “sticking to the plan” – of course – but entertaining and crowd-pleasing it was never going to be.
One could tell that those of us at home weren’t the only ones thinking this. The whole stadium was funereally quiet, subdued and unresponsive. When England are playing like this it is as if rugby union is being taken back to the 19th Century, when it was unashamedly “a game for its players, not the crowd”.
As the half-time whistle blew, I nipped to the porch, donned my gumboots and coat, and took the dogs out for a walk. Some fresh air and exercise was preferable to another 40 minutes of turgid dross on the TV.
Overnight I caught up with the final result and the news that Owen Farrell – the Oliver Cromwell of England rugby union – had been awarded a red card and therefore may be banned from playing in the opening game(s) of the Rugby World Cup.
From such seeds perhaps a successful England World Cup campaign might grow. One can only hope …