DOES LADY LUCK PLAY RUGBY?
So was that a lucky win for England at Twickenham or not? Some finer rugby minds than mine are still squabbling over the answer to that one. My view is there is always some luck involved in a game of rugby.
We play with a very odd shaped ball and to a set of hugely intricate laws. We have all seen those balls that either bounce perfectly and land into the winger’s arms or bobble viciously around a player’s feet. Many a time a ball has just unluckily squirted out of a ruck on the wrong side and an opposition player gratefully scoops it up for a fortuitous try. We see players making split second decisions at huge pace sometimes catching an intercept ball and haring the length of the field or picking up a yellow card for a deliberate knock on. In a game full of thunderous physicality - trying to execute perfect skills for the whole 80 is almost impossible. And then there are our laws with their various interpretations often causing long convoluted debates over referee decisions and teams sometimes benefitting, sometimes losing out.
The All Blacks, as the most naturally skilful team in the world, probably make the least mistakes but we have seen them on both the right and wrong side of luck. The final decision in that drawn Lions game in New Zealand is a case in point where it could be argued that it was the boys in red who got the luck that day.
The 80 minute referee decision with Owen Farrell is being talked about purely due to the point in the game it happened. South Africa fell on the wrong side of that one but as we know there are always penalties throughout a game that could be questioned either way. There was a similar scenario earlier in the game which was actual contact to the head against George Kruis which was not given as a penalty so in the referee was at least consistent.
You can tell by the total mixed bag of opinions on social media on ‘that tackle’ that it is not totally clear cut. To me it means as players, fans, teams you take those ones on the chin. Most of the debate centres on whether Farrell wrapped his arms. This all happened at such high speed and most players do lead with their shoulder as it gives you a stronger contact when someone is running hard at you – just trying to wrap only arms around Esterhuizen I felt Faz would have been shrugged off. However we all know, warrior that he undoubtedly is, Faz still has a tendency to tackle at chest height. He certainly does not favour the chop tackle! With the new law emphasis on height of the tackle he is going to have to adapt his technique because we really do not want to have to revisit this again!
In truth, however, South Africa lost that game for other reasons than not being given a final penalty. They would, when they sat down in the changing room at the end of the game, have admitted that they were not at their best and totally failed to take their opportunity against an injury depleted England.
The Boks failed to execute some simple skills which should have led to points. It is a head scratcher why their quite rightly lauded hooker Malcom Marx made such a pigs ear of his line out throwing especially when kicks at goal were turned down. The reality is luck did not play a part in the way the England scratch back row tackled heroically and contained the treats of Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen. Luck also had nothing to do with South Africa’s inability to get the ball out often enough to their wingers and their insistence on route 1 for most of the game. To be fair it worked in the first half when England could not stop their forwards getting over the gain line. However the England defence was organised and reactive and did not panic when under the cosh. South Africa without the genius and playmaking of a Willi Le Roux and Faf De Klerk lacked ideas and creativity.
The plus side for South Africa is they will get a lot better and it looks likely they will have their talisman Faf de Klerk back for the rest of the series. Damien De Allende was a force of nature and really troubled our mid field defence. Steph De Toit was monstrous in his tackling and physicality and Handre Pollard looks a real proper Bok outhalf – strong, fast, good hands and a superb boot.
As for England you have to give credit for such a gutsy, ballsy performance. Lots of pundits were predicting an England loss and if we admire other sides for scrapping a win in a tight attritional game we can do the same for England. Overall South Africa did not win because fundamentally they struggled to score against England and I thought our defence looked improved despite a few mistakes. A massive encouragement too was our work at the breakdown where we did not concede the same number of turnovers as usual - so hats off to Steve Borthwick who apparently has been focussing on this part of England’s game.
I loved the whole fairytale of the Mark Wilson selection - out of the blue being parachuted in at number 8 and then going on to pick up a MOM performance. It was like an episode out of a Dandy comic! The award was richly deserved and Wilson bought a work rate and intelligence to the position and was the glue in the pack. He looks like he could, when Billy Vunipola comes back, be an ideal 6 or a bench option to cover the back row.
I was lucky to be at Twickenham so had a fantastic birds eye view of the scrums. From what I could see they were mixed from an England point of view but given the size disparity we held up well even gaining a crucial scrum penalty of our own. For me Kyle Sinckler should come off the bench as he adds so much impact in the loose and Harry Williams offers a bit more solidity. Ben Moon, the Exeter Chief, who usually starts in front of his mate Alec Hepburn at his club got on straight after half time and looked the stronger scrumager. A big positive from Eddie having so many injuries is he may now have found out who can and can’t step up. I would like to see him reverse the starting props against the All Blacks and go with Moon and Williams.
The bench contributed hugely with Zach Mercer looking class and George, Moon and Ewells all adding something. Chris Ashton looked so dangerous for the bit of time he got and I would love to see him get a full game to give him more time to sniff out those opportunities. A selection dilemma if Manu is back fit as Eddie has got plenty of back line talent at his disposal. Jonny May was terrific. I could only gawp at his athleticism in the air and madcap running lines that bamboozled the Springbok defence.
A disappointment was how much Elliot Daly struggled as I was willing him to do really well. He seemed hesitant in defence and got out jumped significantly by the Springbok backs. He is such a class rugby player I am sure he can put that performance behind him but the fact he does not play week in and week out as a 15 makes it so tough at test level when all your skills are put under severe pressure. As a squad we lack any real back up to Mike Brown so Eddie needs to find out pretty sharpish who that is for the World Cup. If Anthony Watson is back from injury for the Six Nations we may well see him in the shirt but it would not surprise me to see Eddie reverting back to the tried and tested Brown as his man to do the job.
For England fans nervous about this coming weekend it is worth remembering that there have always been odds-upsetting, out of the blue, underdog victories in rugby. No-one thought the Springboks stood a chance against the All Blacks recently and they should really have beaten them twice. The England team were written off the last time they played New Zealand in 2012 and look what happened then. Playing the best brings out the best. England will be better I believe on Saturday and will face the All Blacks with some self belief and a willingness to put their bodies on the line. We can ask no more. Oh - and may Lady Luck smile on them too…..