Select Edition

Northern Northern
Southern Southern
Global Global
NZ NZ

FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Owen Farrell is not to everyone’s taste but he is a scrapper beyond compare'

Mick Cleary: 'Owen Farrell is not to everyone’s taste but he is a scrapper beyond compare'
7 months ago

Oh we of little faith!  There they are, dear old England, mocked and scorned and unloved, sitting pretty in the World Cup semi-final, the only unbeaten side in the tournament. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it. Hope you choke on the fumes.

If Steve Borthwick were a certain type, he’d be entitled to rant and rave and scream ‘I told you so!’ at the top of his voice, jeering and sneering at all those critics, some of whom inhabit this self-same column.

But, of course, he is not of that type. And nor has the situation changed that much. England do not carry the air of champions. Even at their clunkiest and most unconvincing – oh, let’s go back as far as last Saturday, maybe, when Fiji started landing a few punches themselves to bring the scores level at 24-24 and certainly if we scratch at our little memory banks it would not take long to remember with a certain horror the fractured, laboured, pip-squeaker against Samoa – England were pretty much slated to get to this point.

That damn draw, you see – silly and lopsided but hugely in their favour. But it has been a reality and even if the bean counters at World Rugby might be ruing the fact that two blue-chip attractions, Ireland with their Green Army of fans and hosts, France, are packing their bags, the simple fact of the matter is that, as Warren Gatland (another suitcase-packer) pointed out last week, those teams have only themselves to blame for not enhancing their seeding at the last World Cup.

Steve Borthwick
After much criticism, Steve Borthwick could afford to hit back at his doubters (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

And that brings us neatly to England against South Africa in Paris this Saturday night, something of a foregone conclusion on paper given the all-consuming manner of the Springboks’ win over France, the bellowing energy of the performance, the relentlessness and voraciousness, the deep-set self-belief, the will, the sense of team, the elemental feel of it all as the defending champions sent the French nation into emotional collapse. Compare and contrast with England’s showing in the tournament thus far and, well, there you have it. It looks to be something of a dead cert in a two-horse race with South Africa the Gold Cup thoroughbred thundering over the fences while England plod and crash their way through the thicket.

The Springboks rolled back the stone from a seemingly lifeless position to do to England in Yokohama very much what they did to Fabien Galthie’s side at the Stade de France on Sunday. They looked a wholly different outfit, harmoniously on-message from first whistle to last to give a shuddering performance.

That’s the scenario in front of England. It was a similar sort of set-up  four years ago in Tokyo. England were the darlings of the moment, the slayers of New Zealand, out-Blacking the All Blacks with the stiletto sharpness of their play, slick and measured, sharp and potent, to deliver one of the seminal World Cup performances. The Springboks, meanwhile, had scuffed their way past Wales in the other semi-final, jerky and uncommanding.

But the Springboks rolled back the stone from a seemingly lifeless position to do to England in Yokohama very much what they did to Fabien Galthie’s side at the Stade de France on Sunday. They looked a wholly different outfit, harmoniously on-message from first whistle to last to give a shuddering performance.

So, the question is, can Borthwick galvanise his men as Rassie Erasmus did four years ago?

Ben Earl
Ben Earl is starting to play with real confidence on a Test stage (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Anything is possible, anything is credible in sport. Owen Farrell is not to everyone’s taste but he is a scrapper beyond compare. If there is a contest that might suit his street-fighter’s outlook, an opportunity to defy the odds and silence the naysayers, then this is it.

Have England got more to offer than a snarl and a girding of loins? Well, it’s starting point. Quite how much further down the road of troubling the big, beastly ‘Boks they get is difficult to gauge with any degree of optimism. England have shown so little of high-end worth in attack that it is nigh on impossible to see them breaching South Africa’s defensive line albeit they did have some shape and menace about them in the opening quarter against Fiji.

England have a scuffler’s chance at the Stade de France. Their only hope is to stand firm, particularly up-front and then strike unexpectedly. Smith offers that possibility. It’s as simple as that.

Do they stick or twist with their one trump card of unpredictability in Marcus Smith? You can see now the avalanche of kicks that will rain down from the Parisian sky on Saturday night if Smith retains the no.15 shirt, the bulls-eye target for an array of potential kickers in Springbok green. The safe option would be to revert to Freddie Steward at the rear, the safe-handed fielder in the deep. After all, the Leicester man has first-hand insight into one of those possibly hoofing the ball into the air, Handre Pollard. Steward, too, had been a fixed part of the England last-line until last Saturday.

Steward the safe option, then. And the wrong option. England have to stick to their guns and start Smith. The Harlequin certainly looked the part at the end of the Marseille ding-dong, blooded, bandaged, fat-lipped, Smith does not shy away from the rough stuff. And, yes, he is vulnerable to the high take but it is not as if the South African wings, Cheslin Kolbe and Kurt-Lee Arendse, are giants stomping towards him.

England have a scuffler’s chance at the Stade de France. Their only hope is to stand firm, particularly up-front and then strike unexpectedly. Smith offers that possibility. It’s as simple as that. Much as pragmatic, points-accumulating England is a necessity, they will scarcely even trouble South Africa with that strategy let alone beat them.

England v South Africa
England have a score to settle with the Springboks but go in as rank underdogs for the semi-final (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The pack, at least, is starting to show signs of muscling up, particularly in that most crucial of areas, the breakdown. Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Ben Earl are the spearhead of England’s quest to beat the ‘Boks. It’s a bloomin’ tough assignment, a test of heart and soul as much as it is of muscle and bone. Any split-second frailty, any momentary lapse of concentration, any indelicate infringement of the laws, and England are well and truly sunk.

England came off the canvas in 2007 in France and got within a toenail of beating South Africa in the final after producing something special to get past Australia and hosts, France, in the knockouts. It can be done.

Earl is growing with each match. He may not quite have mastered the art of control at the rear of the scrum but he is now a real presence round the field, at no time more tellingly than in those all-important latter stages against Fiji when his lung-busting upfield run relieved the pressure and led to the match-sealing penalty.

England came off the canvas in 2007 in France and got within a toenail of beating South Africa in the final after producing something special to get past Australia and hosts, France, in the knockouts. It can be done. The lopsided draw is not their fault, nor too the calibre of opposition so far. This is their first big, big test. It is as much as they and their supporters could have wished for. And that is no small achievement.

It would be a miraculous reversal of fortune if they were to win. They need to draw as profoundly deep as South Africa did four years ago, summon the rage and let loose the hounds. It’s a shot-to-nothing.

Comments

6 Comments
R
Richard 242 days ago

I can see he it committed and talented. But why does he laugh at referees decisions. Which is disrespectful and why does he applaud opposition mistakes. That is a new way that seems to have been introduced to rugby and I for one would like it to be penalised.

P
Paul 242 days ago

Let’s hope LancashIre never becomes an independent nation. This country wouldn’t win anything.

S
Stephen 243 days ago

And he likes no arm tackles...

T
Tom 243 days ago

I've never been a fan of Farrell and I've always said if he were a number 6 or 7 I'd be content with this argument that he's a scrapper and a leader... But what team picks a number ten primarily because he's a tough guy? I'm all for picking forwards with those qualities, I want backs with creativity and speed.

N
Nigel 243 days ago

True story.

T
Tris 243 days ago

England will try just as hard as any other team would. They will probably end up trying harder than SA, (because they have to). But that is only because SA look like a well organised team. One thats repeated its drills for years and have long term understanding in their combinations.

England have a chance, its a rugby ball and it might bounce your way, but effort isnt everything. And I cant see a real weapon to attack. Maul, scrum, kick, play wide SA look a bit better at all.

I hope I'm wrong.

Join free and tell us what you really think!

Sign up for free
Search