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FEATURE Tales of the unexpected

Tales of the unexpected
8 months ago

Just to be clear – because context is everything – this was the team that staggered out of the 2023 Six Nations dressed in nothing more than a flimsy win against Italy; a team which could barely tie its own bootlaces or wipe its own backside. Alun Wyn was gone; Justin was gone. Behind the scenes, the players were threatening strike action and the WRU was mired in toxic allegations of sexism and ‘systematic cultural failings’. The entire kingdom was tottering with Warren Gatland publicly admitting that if he’d known just how much shit was under the carpet, he’d never have come back.  

There’s more. In their World Cup warm-up matches, they botched a game they should have cantered at Twickenham and, back in Cardiff, had all fifteen of their arses handed to them on a plate by South Africa. Consequently, they turned up in France with no one entirely sure how they’d handle Portugal, still less beat a Georgian team who, let’s not forget, had rolled them over in their own back garden just a year previously.    

And yet three weeks into La Coupe de Monde, it’s Wales – Wales, for crying out loud – who’re the first team to qualify for the knock-out stages; more than that, they’re now drooling over a likely quarter final against – Lord above – Argentina or Samoa or Japan. Listen, if you got them three weeks back at 40/1 to win the pot, then laminate that ticket and hammer it to the bedroom wall next to your Nick Tompkins poster. Even now, at a measly, foreshortened 16/1, they look like a half decent punt. Their graph is almost vertiginous. 

Wales
After a tumultuous year, Wales have turned it around and are in the quarter-finals (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Wales are exactly what Steve Borthwick wishes England looked like right now; smart, clinical, accurate, well-oiled, risk averse, no-nonsense, error-free and brutally effective. And that’s just Jac Morgan. Australia – let’s be frank here – weren’t beaten in Lyon but dismantled. At the end of their agony, Angus Bell was in tears, Samu Kerevi was at his wits’ end and Carter Gordon looked like the September centrefold for ‘Psychology Monthly’.  

And Eddie Jones – yet again – was scowling at the media and doing his mea culpa routine. Mate, if you genuinely ‘take full responsibility’ for – what was comfortably – Australia’s record loss to Wales and if you truly believe that ‘my coaching hasn’t been good enough’, then just resign. Spare us the shop-soiled schtick and just walk away. If it helps, Japan are looking for a new Head Coach. 

This very week, Jones was insisting he had ‘no doubts’ Australia would beat Wales. Quote ‘no doubts’ unquote. They went down by forty. Seriously, would you buy a used game-plan from this man?

Jones’s great gift – at least, up until now – isn’t just the ability to create his own reality but to browbeat everyone else into swallowing it too. It’s spookily reminiscent of American Foreign Policy when Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of State. So, for example, Eddie’s England were supposedly bang on track to do something special at this World Cup – this despite a mounting pile of crap results – yet when Jones was finally sacked, Steve Borthwick inherited a set of spreadsheets which showed, in his words, ‘there was nothing we were good at’. 

This very week, Jones was insisting he had ‘no doubts’ Australia would beat Wales. Quote ‘no doubts’ unquote. They went down by forty. Seriously, would you buy a used game-plan from this man? His players look shot, ex-players are spitting tacks and he declared war on the Australian media before he’d even left Sydney Airport. It hasn’t exactly been a charm offensive.

None of which would matter, of course, were Australia on the front foot and humming. Winning, like death, pays all debts. But when you’ve lost seven from eight and you’re odds on to become the first Australian Head Coach to bomb out of a World Cup in the pool stages, it makes your position untenable. It’s also doesn’t do much for the job security of those who dumped Dave Rennie and appointed Jones in the first place.  

Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones’ plan to rip up the Wallaby squad has backfired spectacularly (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

 And this isn’t just Australia’s shambles. Rugby Union desperately needs a strong Wallaby side, the more so in a country where the sport endures a precarious existence in a highly competitive environment. The next men’s World Cup is in Australia; the next Lions’ Tour precedes it. The Wallabies – urgently – need something Gatland-esque. 

So as we – seemingly inevitably – bid au revoir to Australia, we extend a warm bonjour to England who, according to Jones’ nemesis, Sir Clive Woodward, have ‘finally arrived’ at this Rugby World Cup; to wit, a merciless waxing of Chile who were overrun by a free-running team playing with ambition and pace. The numbers don’t lie – 71 points in the black column and none in the red – with Rodd, Dan, Willis, Smith and Arundell all sparkling in the late, Lille sunshine. Indeed, not since the Hundred Years’ War has an Englishman called Henry had quite so much fun in Northern France. 

Frankly, if England hadn’t hit seventy, you’d have been asking yourself why not.

But, with every due respect, this was Chile; proud, defiant, resolute Chile and, almost literally, a band of brothers; here playing in their first World Cup, in their first game against a Six Nations’ side, roaring through the Canción Nacional – ‘How pure, Chile is your blue sky’ – and playing with verve, energy and no little skill. To a man they were an inspiration but they were also fifty fathoms out of their depth. 

In the press hall afterwards, the Chilean Head Coach, Pablo Lemoine, said his team ‘never stood a chance’. In commentary on ITV, Ben Kay described the game as ‘a bit of a training session’. Los Cóndores had no functioning line-out, a tatter of a scrum, a ruinous penalty count, a scattergun kicking game and a talisman, their unflagging captain Martin Sigren, who turned out last season for Doncaster Knights. Frankly, if England hadn’t hit seventy, you’d have been asking yourself why not. 

Henry Arundell
Henry Arundell reminded England fans of his precocious talent (Photo David Ramos – Getty Images)

Look, it was much, much better, not least the intent. It was feel-good stuff. But, crucially, how does it shape Steve Borthwick’s thinking ahead of the Samoa game and, presumably, the knock-out stages. Playmaking-wise, he now has three genuine virtuosos in fine voice each – potentially – bringing something slightly different to the Tenor shirt and to the team. So does he go Pavarotti at fly-half with Plácido Domingo at twelve? Or how about Domingo at ten, José Carreras at full back and, perhaps, Pavarotti on the bench? And is this signature dilemma with his Three Tenors – Farrell, Ford and Smith – genuinely ‘a nice problem to have’ or an agony of choice? O, sole mio. 

Fly-half, of course, is the very knot South Africa are struggling to untie right now, albeit for different reasons; namely, if you pack for seven weeks in France and put four scrum-halves in your luggage and only two fly halves – both brilliant but one of whom is a natural full-back and the other by no means a natural goal kicker – then you run the risk of having your trousers taken down and your butt tanned in public. True, Pollard’s now on board but he’s replaced Malcolm Marx, which, in turn, leaves the Springboks with just one back-up hooker who – ahem – isn’t a day-in-day-out two. All these decisions cost the Springboks the game against Ireland. 

It’s rare in rugby to find a team who can play with that level of fire and ferocity yet never lose their cold-blooded focus.

Look, in the words of the sadly fractured Antoine Dupont, South Africa are touché mais pas coulé. But even without Dupont, France in a quarter final in Paris probably wouldn’t be the Springboks preferred route to the final so, in that sense, the ‘inconsequential’ loss to Ireland does, in fact, have consequences. And while you’re there, are South Africa – genuinely – blue-sky, innovative, outside-the-box-thinkers – 7/1 benches, traffic lights in the coaching boxes – or, as was once said of the all-round egghead Jonathan Miller – are they just ‘too clever by three-quarters’? They appear, right now, to be muddying their own water.

All of which takes absolutely nothing away from the Fighting Irish who were simply phenomenal, not least at the breakdown where they bossed the moss. It’s rare in rugby to find a team who can play with that level of fire and ferocity yet never lose their cold-blooded focus; more than that, who can problem-solve and keep the boat afloat in the middle of a Force Eight gale when, for example, the line-out is – almost fatally – blown off course. It’s the sheer intelligence, the sheer emotional intelligence of this team, that’s truly outstanding. 

Ireland v South Africa
The Irish pack didn’t budge an inch against an intimidating Springbok pack (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

But for all their cerebral talents – Tadhg Bierne, James Ryan, Jonny Sexton, Hugo Keenan – Ireland have the heft too. Andrew Porter propped for seventy-four minutes against two Springbok front rows and budged not one inch. Boy, he is some player. James Lowe was a force of nature; over the ball, kicking the ball, supplying the killer ball (to Mack Hansen) and, memorably, sticking Eben Etzebeth on his shoulder like he was a seven-foot parrot. Bundee Aki? Right now, without peer. 

And what underpins all this excellence is the emotion of their delirious supporters and the team’s connection to its terrace. Irish rugby seems to travel as an entire nation; it was a hallmark of Munster’s legendary European campaigns and O’Paris last weekend was arguably its apogee. Mack ‘F-Bomb’ Hansen said afterwards that the 30,000 Irish voices in Le Stade de France made the place feel like a ‘Slam on steroids’ and, bugger me, here we are still in the pool stages.

Will Ireland win the thing? No idea. But, once again, they picked up no injuries and no cards; in fact, I’m not sure we heard from the TMO all game, remarkable given the measured violence of the exchanges. Huge  kudos to the two teams; make that the three teams, since referee Ben O’Keeffe and his boys were bang on point all evening. 

But if this is what the knock-out stages are going to look and feel like, then the last three weeks of this World Cup are going to be an absolute scintillation. As Ronan O’Gara said in his now famous Cork-shaped team-talk ahead of La Rochelle’s last Heineken Final: ‘L’opportunité; c’est fucking énorme.’ And so it fucking is.

Comments

1 Comment
G
Guy 266 days ago

Une bien belle équipe et de beaux supporters ! J'attends la finale contre la France...

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