It was a test match of which Ernest Hemingway would have approved. A trial of colossal strength, of titanic willpower. The American loved his bloodsports, loved to see men arm-wrestle for hours on end, and Saturday afternoon had two heavyweights bent awkwardly towards each other, eyes locked, palms clasped in seemingly endless antagonism. The tiniest of twists meant a shift of power; at times, it looked like nothing was happening. But it was.
The first half was remarkable: England under extreme duress, exerting everything just to stay on terms. South Africa’s ascendancy was everywhere but on the scoreboard. Your eyes would slide to the top right of the screen, seeking confirmation, and almost unbelievably, it remained tight. Occasionally, the game would cut loose, perhaps down one wing, but very quickly would regather its balance and become close quartered once more. The longer England stayed in touch, the more curious the feeling grew; the further this battle raged, the more the home side fancied their chances.
Hemingway’s Santiago, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘The Old Man and The Sea’, fought his gargantuan Marlin in a similar way. Like Santiago, England were down on their luck; out of favour because of how long it had been since they had last caught a fish. At the end of the book, it is unclear what the protagonist has won. A dismembered Marlin carcass is brought ashore by an exhausted and spent old man: he has seen off the sharks, landed his adversary, but has nothing more than bones to show for it. Autumn Internationals are not dissimilar. England were triumphant in a battle that was just about the battle itself. A World Cup is neither won nor lost this far out, but inner, crucial, questions can be asked and then answered. This wasn’t so much the win, as the winning.
The game was utterly compelling. South Africa were not great. Neither, in truth, were England. But that didn’t really matter. You couldn’t take your eyes off it. The first half leant South Africa’s way; England had precious little territory or possession, but they held firm, even with fourteen men. The only try, when it came, was an indecisive five points; it never seemed like a sucker punch. With Farrell’s pinpoint boot on the pitch, they could chip away at that. Still, the ‘Boks pushed, pounding at England’s mid-rift. It wasn’t all Foreman-like blows either. De Allende skipped and stepped like Ali, always elusive to the first attendee. England managed to scramble and get their guard up; did just enough; dazed, dizzy, but still, on their feet, they made the halftime bell.
The key with big fish is to stay with them. Let them tire themselves out. After two days and two nights hooked, the Marlin starts to circle Santiago’s boat, almost conceding the fight; pleading to be put out of his misery. So, as the game wore on, the Springboks began to relent. Chances went a-begging, lineouts were overthrown, big men limped from the field. The penalties that had been England’s concession in the first half, started to point Twickenham’s way. Elliot Daly’s lengthy boot was a harpoon to the side of a wounded beast. ‘Bring them ashore’, whispered the English faithful, ‘carry them home’.
A final thrash; Pollard stroked over a good penalty of his own. Daly found space on the left-hand side but cut back infield, away from his finishers; Brad Shields (a man as well named in this match as any) chucked a try-scoring chance aimlessly over his shoulder. Could the ‘Boks find a way free? Farrell plunged another three-point dagger into their flank, but still land seemed far off. The near faultless Pollard blinked as his kick grazed the outside of the post and, seemingly galvanised by their own demise, the South Africans pulsed one more time. Farrell gutted a ball carrier on his own line and then applied a precarious shoulder in a tackle that oozed fatigue and final glory in equal measure. But Referee Gardner wasn’t keen on deciding this duel: the deed was done, the beast defeated. England slumped in the shallows, victorious. Alongside them; accomplishment and the remains of a fallen brother, a worthy opponent.
A popular belief is that, in the book, the sharks that the Old Man encounters on his way back home are Hemingway’s critics. They destroy the Marlin, Santiago’s dream catch, but he beats them by never giving up. Eddie Jones’ tenacity is obvious. On occasion, it seethes from him, at other times, it appears flippant. But the belief in himself, in his team, has always been there.
“Why is it always the most important game?” railed Jones post-match, face to face with those sharks. “Because you want to sack me? You’re going to do it at some stage. You know that. You know that. If I stay long enough, you’re going to get me sacked. One day you’ll be happy…”
“A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” muses Santiago and Hemingway at the end of the novel. You feel Jones would agree. He would also accept that the sea contains bigger fish. It always will. How England attempt to land one next weekend will be captivating. But with Jones at the helm, you cannot help but feel that England will have a chance.