This afternoon, the BBC showed the highlights of the international rugby match played yesterday between England and South Africa, at Twickenham. I already knew that it would have a happy ending. (I find important rugby internationals very hard to watch properly, and always try to tape them, so that, if England win, I can then settle down and enjoy them properly. I am not, in other words, a Real Fan.)
Anyway, yes, England won 32-16, scoring two tries in the first half, with South Africa only managing one try, at the end when it was too late.
This was not a result that many people expected. Why? Because no one really knew what to expect.
South Africa won the recent triangular tournament of the Southern Hemisphere giants (i.e. against Australia and New Zealand), but what does that mean nowadays? Hard to say. After all, last weekend, Ireland beat them in Dublin. Narrowly, but they beat them.
As for England, who knew? Since that World Cup triumph (actually since just before it – England peaked before the World Cup rather than at it and only just clung on to their form enough during the World Cup to win it) England have been in decline, and then in – disintegration. Big Name after Big Name announced their various retirements. Leonard, Johnson, Dallaglio, Back. Manager Clive Woodward had always said in public that the World Cup, once won, was only the start and that he and his happy band would then proceed to win the next one. But in truth, winning this thing once (and for the very first time remember) was always the important thing, and once Everest was climbed, climbing it again held insufficient magic for the older players, especially since their only contribution would be supplying a bit of continuity before retiring in a year or two’s time. Other players got injured, or revealed that they already were injured, and in no state to play in any games other than such games as World Cup Finals. Others just needed to put their feet up. So the World Cup team fell to bits with extraordinary suddenness. England came third in the Six Nations at the beginning of this year, their lowest position for many years, and only escaped a total thrashing from France in the final game (which had earlier been billed as some kind of huge decider type confrontation) because the French got bored and let England back into the game. And then when England journeyed yet again to Australasia to try to repeat their pre-World Cup triumphs of a year earlier (that was when they peaked), they were just murdered.
Eventually Woodward himself realised that putting together another team to win the World Cup again would not be the same either, so he said bye bye also, muttering about being some sort of soccer manager, and amid autobiographical claims that he only played rugby instead of soccer because his snobbish dad made him. Now he tells us. So the England team for the current crop of Northern Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere internationals now being played in Britain really were an unknown quantity, above all because there is now a new boss, a man called Robinson. Andy Robinson. New guys were no longer playing for as long as it took World Cup Giants to recover from their various injuries and tirednesses. Now, they were playing in the certain knowledge that the Giants are all history, and that if they are now in the starting line-up for the biggest matches (like against South Africa at Twickenham), that makes them the best, instead of just the best of the rest. Non-household names like Corry, Worsley, Moody, Borthwick, Grewcock, Henry Paul (he is Henry Paul because he is really from New Zealand and has a brother who rugby league, for New Zealand, I think) are now first choices, with no Everest behind them to render their current efforts meaningless. Joining them are guys who, if you have only been watching internationals, you may never have heard of. Titterell. White. Somebody called Cueto. What sort of an England rugby name is Cueto? (Well, no odder than Dallaglio, I suppose.)
A few Big Names from – oh, that World Cup thing – do remain. There is Josh Lewsey, the flying winger. There is big beefy centre threequarter Mike Tindall. There is big, beefy but fallible (especially with his line-out throwing) hooker, Steve Thompson. Above all, there is the twinkle-toed genius who scored England’s only try in the You Know What and who then took the summer off, a man also called Robinson. Jason Robinson. He is a black Born Again Christian, so, for some English purposes, evangelical Christianity does still have its uses. As one of the TV commentators said recently, one of him facing just one opponent is like having an overlap already. He was badly missed during the Australasia tour in the summer.
Most intriguing of all, there is a new fly half, called Hodgson, who would have been in the You Know What squad had he not been injured and had to stay at home. And why, pray, is there a new fly half? Does Jesus Christ’s younger brother Jonny not now play fly half for England, now and for ever? Well, no he does not. Not since the You Know What. His very last kick for England (I think) remains the drop goal that won the You Know What in the dying moments of extra time. Since then, he has been hurt. His shoulder is damaged.
It is not impossible that Wilkinson has played his last game for England. Not likely, just not impossible. Why? I’ll list the reasons.
One: Wilkinson seems to be one of these people whose mind is stronger than his body, with the former constantly demanding of the latter things that it cannot quite do. (As the bald guy said in Top Gun: “Son, your whatchamacallit is writing cheques that your whosadaisy can’t deliver on!” or whatever it was.) Physically, Jonny W is no weakling, of course not. But mentally he is very strong, as in very mentally determined to do physically amazing things, so this could be a real problem for him, especially as he gets older. He is not just hurt now. He keeps getting hurt.
In particular, Wilkinson loves to tackle people, one of his most memorable moments (apart of course from the drop kick at the end of the YKW) being an extraordinarily violent tackle (more like a head-on collision really) that he inflicted on the unfortunate French captain a year or two back. He survived this collision, in fact he won it completely, leaving the French captain strewn all over the track for the next two hundred yards with himself still careering along the rails. But that tackle was greeted not so much with a collective roar from the crowd, as with a collective eupphhh!!! – as if 70,000 people had all been simultaneously punched in the ribs by 70,000 giants, all at the same time. Such contretemps take their toll.
Two: Wilkinson’s prime skill is his goal kicking. When it comes to running and passing, he is good, but no genius. It only needs a rival fly half to step forward who outshines Wilkinson in these skills to threaten King Jonny’s reign. Why? Because tries get you five points, seven if you convert them, and so are still the best way to win rugby matches. There is also the fact that even the best goal kickers, Wilkinson even, are capable of losing their touch and suddenly becoming ordinary. Ask the golfers.
Third (see above): Charlie Hodgson. He, apparently, is better than Wilkinson at passing and running. And he is not a bad goal kicker either, and has it in him to get a lot better at it (see below).
A week ago, against Canada. Hodgson ran and passed brilliantly, but he kicked goals ï¿½ well he basically did not kick goals apart from the very easy ones, despite numerous opportunities to do so created by, e.g., himself. And whereas kicking goals is kicking goals, with the opposition team no more involved than the crowd, running and passing depends a lot on the opposition, and Canada are only Canada. So, for Hodgson, the game against South Africa was huge. And he did not disappoint. He jinked his way through for the first England try, and generally played splendidly. Most amazingly of all, he had a dream of a day kicking goals, missing nothing and thus scoring 27 of England’s 32 points.
Although, it has to be said that the basis of the England win was a massive forward effort by all those big beefy new boys, Corry, Moody, Borthwick etc. England, it turns out, really do have that strength in depth that people like me were, until yesterday, doubting. It must also have helped that yesterday was by far the coldest and most miserable day of this autumn so far. South Africa, who do not like such things anyway, had no real preparation for such miseries, it having been mild and dry until yesterday. Meanwhile, for England’s players coldness and dampness are like sunshine to a West Indian cricketer. The point of these digressions is that yesterday, England did not just win. They were winning throughout, and nothing makes a fly half look better than being surrounded by a winning team, forwards going forwards, opposition backs on the back foot, etc.
Nevertheless: Wilkinson, look out. From having been England’s sporting number one, you could find yourself demoted to England number two fly half, if Hodgson carries on like this.
There is also a new scrum half called Harry Ellis whom a lot of people are now talking about. Dawson (England YKW scrum half) seems to be past it now, and his number two Bracken has bowed out. Number three for the last few years has been a guy called Gomarsall, but Gomarsall had a somewhat poor game against South Africa, and Ellis could soon be the starter.
Despite all the changes in the team, and the departure of Woodward of course, the most important recent England rugby appointment might eventually prove to be a man called Joe Lydon. Joe who? You would not say that if you were a rugby league fan, because Joe Lydon used to be a rugby league god. And, he has now become the England (rugby union) offensive coach. In English, that makes him the man who tells the England backs how to score tries. Previously, he was the boss of England’s outstandingly successful seven-a-side rugby team, from among whose ranks so many fifteen-a-side regulars keep emerging. Do I detect the influence of Lydon in picking Henry Paul (ex rugby league) instead of YKW hero Will Greenwood, who now languishes on the England subs bench, alongside YKW hero Ben Cohen?
Before the highlights of the England South Africa game, the BBC also showed the highlights of England versus New Zealand at rugby league, and you got a sight of just how good those league fellows are at running and passing, and hence what Lydon brings to rugby union. The underlying point is that the best union players are now all as ferociously fit and skilful and well trained as league players have long been. Attacking Union runners used to rely on the other fellows being either tired or just plain crap at tackling, but that no longer works and they have to learn a whole new bag of tricks. These last couple of games suggest to me that England are learning such tricks.
I know, I know. England always say they are going to play Expansive Rugby, but then, when faced with the choice between losing expansively and winning boringly, they always settle for grinding up to the other end and kicking penalties. And so it may be once again. But this time – I think, I hope, I pray – it really could be different. Against Canada, for all that Canada are amateurs to England’s pros, I thought I detected a genuinely different approach among England’s backs. In particular, they seemed willing to throw very long passes, as a matter of routine, during the first twenty minutes, and not just towards the end when they were either playing desperate catch-up or celebrating an easy win. There really did seem to be something different going on. And then yesterday, despite the first rate opposition and vilely wet weather, England scored a couple of very good tries, the second being by this Cueto chap, after a long kick found him all alone on the wing. I could really get used to Cueto if he keeps doing that.
Meanwhile, also yesterday, New Zealand defeated Wales yesterday by the narrowest of margins. The great Joe Rokocoko, the one truly stunning player on either side, scoring two New Zealand tries, including one second half masterpiece of guile and pace that was one of the best I have seen on TV in a long time. So despite losing, Wales are back in business, as Ireland have been for some while. Even Scotland have not been doing too badly either (by their recent catastrophic standards).
And France? Very unpredictable. Another different story. I still fancy France for the next YKW, as do many. Like England four years ago, they are now desperate to win it, and, like England, to do so for the first time.
But, after yesterday, and for the first time since they did win it just over a year ago now, I am starting to fancy England too. I really must get out and watch England v Australia next weekend, while it actually happens, in a pub. If England can win that, they will really be up and running.