James Haskell is a difficult man to love. He’s in love with himself for starters; a crowded relationship like that can always be tricky. But the self-titled Archbishop of Banterbury has rubbed people up the wrong way both on and off the pitch. So much so that people didn’t really want him in the team to face Australia for the first test of England’s tour down under. As the game wore on and Saturday began to play out, Haskell proved a lot of people wrong. And that was pretty much the theme of a truly incredible weekend. The northern hemisphere rugby teams did what people didn’t think they could.
Let’s wind it back. England Saxons went to Bloemfontein on Friday evening and took on South Africa ‘A’. A match as amusing for its free running rugby as it was for the dulcet tones of Hugh Blaydon rechristening everyone’s favourite fly half Danny ‘Cipriati’. Ali Hepher’s A-team looked sparky and fresh, with the likes of Alec Hepburn leading by example. The young Exeter Chief threw himself (and his lovely flowing mane) around the park, popping up for the first try and being involved in most of England’s best manoeuvres.
Nick Tompkins of Saracens also looked razor sharp, leading a back line that included Bath’s Semesa Rokoduguni and Sale’s Mike Haley, running like labradors off the leash. The second choice Englishmen pilfered turnover ball and struck from everywhere on the pitch and as the final whistle blew, the Saxons had plundered and won; playing rugby in the southern hemisphere looked like really good fun.
Nevertheless, we started Saturday morning with hands in front of our eyes, peeking through fingers as the All Blacks stuck their tongues out at the Welsh. This was going to be ugly. Those pathetic Taffies had lost to a second string England side two weeks ago; they had no hope against the best side in the world; Warren wouldn’t get to play with his notorious ball.
Or so we thought.
New Zealand slipped off tackles and gave Wales enough space to play a game many west of Newport had supposedly forgotten. George North looked like a real handful, Rhys Webb got a big black marker out and wrote his name on a Lions jersey, and Liam Williams bounced around the back field like a bow legged JPR. Wales led at the interval and even though we knew it wouldn’t last, the rarified air of a half time lead felt good in the lungs. Inevitably Aaron Smith’s men did managed to get their act together but Welsh expectations had been raised to a level not felt since Gavin Henson and Charlotte Church got it on. Time for a rarebit and cup of tea.
Things moved up a notch at the Suncorp Stadium on Australia’s East Coast as England, led by the rambunctious and aforementioned Haskell, decided to dish up some Lancastrian revenge. Cheika packed his midfield with mutants and looked to have rolled the right dice as Hooper and Folau scampered in for two first half tries. Foley was denied a third by the TMO and some off the ball blocking, but when Jonathan Joseph nursed a loose pass through with his feet, you suddenly realised that England were in front.
Marland Yarde profited from a beautifully looping George Ford miss pass; Owen Farrell kicked his penalties; and as time ticked away it was looking harder to lose than win in Brisbane. Hooper got a second and Kurindrani a first but hysterically England had the last laugh. With the clock running dead, young Ford, thousands of miles away from all of those booing England fans, looked up, saw space and a lone, scampering winger fitting the description of Jack Nowell.
Cue the house party. Glen Ella and Eddie Jones jumped up and down in the coaches’ box, blissfully unaware that a hidden camera was allowing the whole of Australia to witness their blasphemous delight. Guess who’s not getting an invite to Russell Crowe and Sam Burgess’s mum’s wedding? Both of you (and Mike Ford).
But hold the phone. Ireland in Springbok territory. The final instalment of an international rugby trilogy to rival anything JJ Abrams could dream up.
The Irish stole into an early lead through some neat Marshall/Payne kick chase work but the real turning point came as CJ Stander (Ireland’s very own South African) saw a contentious red. Stander had leapt to try and charge down Pat Lambie’s kick through and, because he’s governed by Newton’s Law and gravitational physics, could not change the direction of where he was to land. His hip kissed Lambie’s chops like a Muhammed Ali money shot and the South African fly half was dreaming of match winning drop goals before he hit the turf. The referee reached for rouge and to compound matters, moments later, Robbie Henshaw received an invitation to sit in the bin for a high shot on Jantjies, as Mvovo hit an inside line to score.
Rugby writers across the globe started to type up Saffer winning headlines. But no, select all and delete. Ireland ate their way through peat bogs of defensive responsibility and even though he threw an intercept try that almost buggered the whole thing up, Paddy Jackson showed everyone that there is life without Sexton. South Africa were bundled into touch one final time and Rory Best led his bench on to the field to celebrate an historic and memorable victory.
An unforgettable weekend for Northern Hemisphere rugby. I didn’t think they could do it. But then again, I don’t think Haskell should play seven for England.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved