Click here for me for the Rugby Blog – one final time
As Nigel Owens and TMO Ben Skeen deliberated over whether the ball had gone forward off Haylett-Petty or Maro Itoje in Saturday’s third test between Australia and England in Sydney, Michael Cheika appeared in a box in the bottom right corner of our screens. In no uncertain terms, the Aussie head coach was chuntering. He looked a broken man, beleaguered by a fifteen day process which had undone all his erstwhile good work. Having previously perfected the happy-go-lucky aspect of a man who has been out all night and yet was keen to continue through to lunch, Cheika now resembled someone who had not got drunk enough, been lumbered with everyone’s bar tab and then missed three buses home.
The Wallaby supremo watched on, like we all did, as an extraordinary final test match unfolded. The visitors, seemingly forgetful of those poignant Michael Jackson lyrics Gustard had given them a week ago, slipped off tackles and allowed the Green and Gold back line real opportunity. Matt Toomua moistened many an East Midland crevice with an eye catching display at 12 and Australia looked like a team who could win. But Jones has given England an undeniable ability to piss on anyone’s bonfire, a skill so typically Antipodean, and through well taken tries from Cole, Brown and Vunipola, always seemed to have enough in the bladder.
For here was England rugby, belching and farting its way toward a gluttonous win. Headed up by a cackling and wise cracking maestro, they swigged and swallowed their way through Sydney. For every time Australia slammed an empty cup down upon the table, England picked up theirs. For every challenge, they had a brimful answer. The rubicund face of the replacement hooker, having pounced on the final pie, broke forth a satisfied smile; England and saintly George sat replete.
A nod at the urinal to Owen Farrell. I’m not going to start an argument about just how good player he is, but you won’t be able to dispute that no player is more important to their national team. Farrell is very much Eddie Jones’ England; as likely to punch you in the face as throw a match winning pass or kick an impossible goal. A centrepiece around which England have dined so well. For in Farrell’s shadow, Ford has been allowed to rediscover his impish form; from Owen’s metronomic boot, his hulking team have, time and again, been able to build; from his iron will, forged in the industrious North-West, England has wrought an unbreakable resolve. Put simply, the Australians hate him; I don’t think there is a higher accolade in sport.
And as for Jones himself. Those piratical, darting eyes of his peep furtively across the Tasman sea. Not towards home, but beyond that. In between the evasive grinning and mate-like deprecation lies knowledge that this was only one lock to unpick. The treasure with which Jones’ boys now line their pockets will only get them so far. The land of the long white cloud sits waiting, crouching; the smoke of England’s plundering pricking at their nostrils. November cannot come fast enough.
There were but scraps from the table in New Zealand these past few weeks. Like amicable hosts the Kiwis did not let Wales go hungry but as far as pictures that paint a thousand words, look no further than Israel Dagg streaking away from a covering Liam Williams to cap a forty point All Black win in Dunedin early on Saturday morning. Williams, unable to catch his man, looked skywards, as if to suggest what might have been possible. The fact that Dagg didn’t come within five yards of him tells a different story. And so it was for this three match series. Wales never had enough to live with the World Champions. They will limp home and tell their cousins just how tricky it was to sup in such company; England will have to listen.
Ireland will also have a tale of woe. Food is fast and fleeting in South Africa and come crunch time in Port Elizabeth on Saturday afternoon, Joe Schmidt’s men missed ample opportunities. Willie Le Roux should have become Willie Le Rouge after his hazardous upending of Tiernan O’Halloran but Glen Jackson and friends saw it only as ten minutes on the naughty step. JP Pietersen looked back to his best (another man on his way Leicester), and as he plucked out Elton ‘John’ Janjties cross field kick, you felt Ireland would only have one roll of the dice left. And so it was, in the closing moments, the ball worked its way out to Keith Earls and Faf de Klerk, the whirling dervish of a Springbok scrum half, wrapped him up in consummate if not illegal fashion. One-eyed Jackson ignored the fact that de Klerk committed at least two infringements over the ball and the series win was secured. Ireland will seldom have better opportunities. You must eat when you can.
But the future belongs to England. Not only in Australia but unrelentingly back home in Manchester too. In the JWC, the U20s constructed as dominant a display as the tournament has ever seen to claim the title. In truth, no one got close to them all championship and in a Northern Hemisphere final against the Irish, Mallinder and his mates marauded home.
My favourite realisation of the past few weeks has been that now, finally, England can stop talking about 2003. Here is not only a team, for me, as good as the one that won the World Cup but there is a ready made succession plan in place. In the current squad, the Saxons and that U20 side, England have enough meat to outlast any coming winter. Rather than constantly looking back and harping on about how good things used to be, they can exist in the present and point towards the near future. This has been Jones’ greatest gift to English rugby. Sure, he has given confidence, trust and made the most of a big pool of talent. But most importantly, he has made sure England are only about the here and now. The rhetoric, and there has been plenty, has always been about facing forwards.
An incredible end to an unforgettable season. And not long ’til it starts over again. We best get some sleep.