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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'What England were missing was what they produced big time on Saturday – a statement victory'

Mick Cleary: 'What England were missing was what they produced big time on Saturday – a statement victory'
4 months ago

Hello, England. Nice to see you, to see you – nice.  Where have you been? On your travels, lost in a time-warp since that World Cup semi-final in Japan? Who were these guys in white on Saturday, a posse of swell-hearted bandidos hell bent on derailing that Irish Grand Slam wagon train? Where had they been hiding? Up there in the rocks, swooping and hollering to great effect to the surprise of everyone, perhaps even  themselves. Welcome back. You’ve been missed. So, too, Twickenham, from mausoleum to madhouse in 80 minutes. That’s quite the party trick.

In a world of instability and discord it’s a boon to know that there is one certainty in a rugby fan’s calendar – that the Six Nations will engage, it will surprise and it will never disappoint. That, above all else, is the key-line message from the weekend’s events, be it in Rome or at Twickenham. There was a very real danger that Saturday’s matches would turn out to be a formality, the death-knell for a sport that wants to lay claim on being a blue-riband event for supporters, for broadcasters and for those with deep sponsorship pockets. Where there is no jeopardy, there is no future. (Premiership executives please take note).

There was jeopardy in spades on Saturday, wibbles and wobbles, bewildering mathematical permutations, operatic heights and no bum notes. The drama would have unfrozen the heart of an Iron Maiden. Rag n’ Bone man was a top-billing act. Instead, the half-time chatter was about the game not the booked entertainment. That’s as it should be. No need for gimmicks. The sport is the thing. Only, of course, it hasn’t been. From jeers to cheers, from dark winter to spring revival.

England did the sporting cause an immense amount of good in their pip-squeak but thoroughly merited victory over Ireland. But beware, indulge yourself in Saturday night celebration by all means, but one swallow does not a summer make. England are far from world-beaters even if they did manage to clip the wings of the game’s number one ranked side. Ireland have toiled and laboured, crafted as well as grafted, grooved and honed, for years for that status. They have won and won and won again.

George Furbank
England played with an ambition rarely seen in recent years and lifted the crowd at Twickenham (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England are at the start of something. Maybe. Yeah, only maybe. Probably if you want to be generous. Mind you, even if they had lost, and that would have been a harsh outcome for they always had the nudge on Ireland, there would still have been huge merit in their performance. If their goal-kickers’ radar had been more finely tuned then they might have been home and hosed before that dramatic finale.

Of course, there will be a lot of  ‘I told you so,’ in the air after such a victory against the odds. The bookies must hope that this toppling of an odds-on favourite is a portent of what is to come at Cheltenham over the next few days. But those seemingly outlandish markers – Ireland 1-6 to win and England at 4-1 against – were set for a reason. The form book is not compiled by a half-soaked half-wit. Would that it were.

What England were missing was what they produced big time on Saturday – a statement victory which will quell those tiny nagging whispers that have been buzzing around somewhere inside even the most confident of characters in the squad.

Ireland had been in their pomp while England had been betwixt and between – okay in parts, desperate at other times, spilling ball and looking as if they had all just met in the Dog and Duck.

Yet there was a sense even before the game that their selection was better balanced, more co-ordinated, offering tantalising possibilities. Above all, what England were missing was what they produced big time on Saturday – a statement victory which will quell those tiny nagging whispers that have been buzzing around somewhere inside even the most confident of characters in the squad. The outward face might say one thing but the inner man knows the truth. England had been a middling, fractured, bits n’ pieces team. They no longer are, the slick, upbeat, on-message, training ground outfit that they had been talking about as a plea for the defence finally came to the witness stand and delivered.

Jamie George
England now have to prove the win over Ireland wasn’t an aberration, that they can deliver on a regular basis (Photo by Dan Mullan – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick spoke of ‘the shirt weighing heavily,’ on English shoulders at Murrayfield as a way of explaining why his players had looked and played so nervously. Borthwick has got many things right over the last fortnight – and fair play to him, now vindicated and wholly endorsed through to the 2027 World Cup, no longer to be doubted and castigated –  but that remark was not one of them. Ask any All Black of the last several decades. That jersey is supposed to weigh heavily.

There is a legacy to be lived up to, a badge to pay homage to. On Saturday, England played in just that manner, as if the feats of a Peter Wheeler or Fran Cotton or Peter Winterbottom or Rory Underwood or Jason Leonard or Martin Johnson (insert your own legends at this point) meant something and had to be lived up to. Now, Ben Earl, for starters, can claim that self-same turf. The ad-hoc gladiator No 8, with a big heart and serious wheels, has plenty of Red Rose chums jostling behind him, worthy of consideration.

England would still have been applauded from the field, for their spirit, their sassy defiance, their boldness, their ambition and their elemental desire not to be bested by their opposite number.

The hearts and minds battle for any international team is a key endeavour. Without the fans’ backing, it’s an empty pursuit. Twickenham would have groaned at the final whistle if those final three points had not been snared but it would have been a sound of disappointment not of abject dejection. Instead it was a visceral roar. Deep-throated and heartfelt. The volcano rumbled and then erupted.

England played with spunk and nous, took the game to Ireland and were the better side no matter what the scoreboard was saying. England would still have been applauded from the field, for their spirit, their sassy defiance, their boldness, their ambition and their elemental desire not to be bested by their opposite number. Victory, of course, was a massive piece of icing. That taste is one to savour. It will linger for many a day.

England
England went toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in the world and deserved the win (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

There were stand-out showings from Earl (again), the re-installed George Martin who brought heft and doggedness to all that he did at the coal-face, the re-jigged Ollie Chessum, too, hammering into everything green while Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill were back to being Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill of old.  Ollie Lawrence and Manny Feyi-Waboso were the pick of the back line. There was an air of adventure in England’s approach and that speaks well of the efforts of the half-backs, Alex Mitchell and George Ford. The rear field added a lot of pace and devil to the game. The George Furbank contentious selection now looks to be a done deal.

The TV clip of him and Andy Farrell having a verbal ding-dong at half-time was priceless. It may well have just been one of those things but England’s players will have taken note. The boss has their back. And, for sure, they have got his.

What now of France in Lyon? It would be no surprise if Borthwick were to rubber-stamp those who did the business against Ireland. There is a case, of course, for promoting the match-winning scorer, Marcus Smith, to the starting line-up. That fly-half conundrum will run for a while yet with Fin Smith also in the frame.

Borthwick will do as Borthwick does – be firm and straight. The TV clip of him and Andy Farrell having a verbal ding-dong at half-time was priceless. It may well have just been one of those things but England’s players will have taken note. The boss has their back. And, for sure, they have got his. It was that kind of musketeers’ day.

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Comments

7 Comments
C
Coach 132 days ago

Last NINE Games played by Ireland who won 7 out of 9. Strangely South Africa have won 8 out of 9. Weird this stat…

K
Kabous 132 days ago

‘England are far from world-beaters even if they did manage to clip the wings of the game’s number one ranked side. Ireland have toiled and laboured, crafted as well as grafted, grooved and honed, for years for that status.’

I must be missing something…

M
Michael 132 days ago

England beat France in 2021, and then South Africa in 2021 with a last minute penalty. Won Australia series in 2022 being a match down and with a load of new caps, and then drew with NZ in the autumn. Good performances backed up with nothing.

Ireland beat England in 2021 and it kick-started something for them.

Hopefully England do the same on Saturday. Jury still out.

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