Yes I know this is a cricket blog but sometimes you just can’t ignore the big sporting story of the day. And that was England’s defeat to South Africa in the rugby World Cup final in Japan.
It was a big defeat I’m afraid. Eddie Jones’s team were thoroughly outplayed and there can be no complaints. It’s not like we lost on some inexplicable rule like the number of turnovers or least number of knock ons. South Africa were ahead in every single department.
I can’t pretend to be a rugby expert. I follow the premiership and I’ve probably watched most of England’s internationals over the last 30 years – mostly in the pub where my beer consumption warps my objectivity – but I did actually fancy South Africa from the start. Although I was still hopeful that England might win if we played well.
Why did I fancy the Springboks? Because it rarely goes well when all my friends assume that England will win! What’s more, South Africa seemed to have the more compelling narrative with their first black captain in charge. I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to sport sometimes.
I also fancied South Africa because finals are often tense and the team with the best set piece usually wins. It’s hard to play free flowing rugby when the pressure’s really on; therefore I suspected it would be a dour match that descended into an arm wrestle. And unfortunately there’s nobody better than the South Africans when it comes to awful games like this.
What really depressed me, however, was the performance of England’s scrum. You simply can’t win rugby matches if you’re giving away 3 points every time you knock the ball on in your own half. I’ve seen England (and the Lions) murder the opposition in the scrum in the past and it’s often decided the outcome of the game. Today the boot was firmly on the other foot. In fact, it was probably the worst performance by an England scrum that I can recall in 30 years. Has our front row ever been utterly destroyed before?
Although I thought South Africa’s defence was also superb, and they were excellent at the breakdown too, their scrum basically won them the game. It’s humiliating to be pushed backwards at scrum time in what’s a very macho and physical contest, and England never really got a foothold in the game as a result. One wonders whether Dan Cole will ever play for England again? Although I doubt it was all his fault.
Overall, however, England’s World Cup should still go down as a success and the squad should be proud. It was sad to get beaten so comprehensively, and the manner of the defeat will hurt, but we played brilliantly to beat both Australia and New Zealand beforehand. I think most people would’ve settled for beaten finalists before the team left for Japan.
In the end I sense that England simply weren’t as good as people thought we were after the New Zealand game. Yes we’re a very good team (a bit like Wales) who can beat anyone on their day, but there are a lot of teams in world rugby like that. The Six Nations should have showed us that this team isn’t the finished article quite yet. Remember when we surrendered that massive lead against Scotland?
I heard some people argue before kickoff that the current side is better than the 2003 team. But that was always crackers. Clive Woodward’s team had been No.1 in the world for a while and arrived at the World Cup as favourites. Every single player was world class with the possible exception of Trevor Woodman, Mike Tindall, and Ben Kay (who were merely very good).
The current England team, on the other hand, are very talented but they’ve still got some growing to do – not to mention some consistency to find. Anthony Watson, for example, is not as good as Jason Robinson. Ben Youngs isn’t as good as Matt Dawson. And England’s back row are effervescent and exciting but they’re not Hill, Back, and Dallaglio just yet.
And as for the brilliant Maro Itoje, who did so well against the All Blacks, he may become as good as Martin Johnson one day. But that day might not come until 2023 (or even 2027). He’s still only 25 years old after all. The same might be said for the rest of the team too. I see only good times ahead for England with this core group of players.
There is a silver lining to all this, however. England’s failure in Yokohama means that our cricketers are now surely odds on to win the BBC’s SPOTY Team of The Year award.
I admit this feels like pretty feeble compensation right now, but with all the controversy off the pitch in English cricket at the moment, I’ll gladly take the small victories when they come along.
Enjoy your weekend folks! I might not have time to write about England’s T20 tomorrow so you’ll probably hear from me again on Monday.
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