After a World Cup dominated by the Southern Hemisphere’s rugby giants, Europe’s finest took a huge step towards regaining their dignity over the course of the weekend with some wonderful results and some truly exceptional performances.
It all began on Friday evening when England Saxons outshone South African ‘A’ in Bloemfontein 32 – 24. A mixture of a handful of previously capped players, some very raw and very green youngsters and a sprinkling of experienced club men saw the Saxons triumph over an ‘A’ side featuring four Springboks.
Semesa Rokoduguni’s try was the highlight of a determined Saxons effort, all beginning from a turnover from yet another England outcast, Matt Kvesic.
(via Rugby Dump)
But that is only where the fun began.
Having been outplayed and out-thought against England in the Old Mutual Wealth fixture a couple of weeks back, very few people fancied Wales to avoid a cricket score against World Champions New Zealand at Eden Park. However, with their backs against the wall the men in red put in some truly stunning performances to get within a whisker of making history.
Liam Williams had the game of his life as he made a mockery of New Zealand’s much-vaunted defence, cutting through black shirts like a knife through butter. Alun Wyn Jones, who must now be a serious contender for the Lions captaincy next year, look like a man possessed throughout.
That the Welsh players’ faces matched the same red hew as their shirts by the end of the match will highlight a major issue for Warren Gatland’s men: they are second-best when it comes to aerobic fitness in comparison to the All Blacks. That issue meant the stuttering New Zealanders were able to rediscover some of their more expected abilities by the conclusion of the match as the visitors faded away.
Next England came and having conceded two tries quickly at the beginning of the match, it looked as though Eddie Jones’ honeymoon period was firmly over.
However, as the Red Rose had shown throughout the Six Nations, this England team knows how to get back into a game and take a stranglehold on it, just as they did against the Wallabies.
Whereas previously Stuart Lancaster might have kept faith with his team for the majority of the match, Jones acted decisively, removing Luther Burrell from the pitch. Although the move will be seen as harsh by many, bringing on Ford meant England’s defensive line could be led by Owen Farrell at 12 once more, a line-up that had worked so efficiently and effectively for the majority of the Six Nations.
With one change England were suddenly a different team. Rather than benefitting from the absence of Burrell, the team was galvinised by the 10/12 axis of Ford and Farrell.
England’s try at the death of the game was more reminiscent of a southern hemisphere side in its pomp rather than the more pragmatic nature we come to associate with those from the north.
As for Ireland, in the entire history of Test rugby, only six tier one test sides have won despite seeing a red card. James Dalton, South Africa’s hooker, was red carded against Canada back in 2005 and his time went on to win 20 – 0, but Canada also saw two red cards in the same game.
To beat South Africa in South Africa for the first time in your history is monumental, but to do it with a man down is something else.
Yes, cynics will say South African rugby is suffering due to an increasingly unhappy marriage between sport and politics that is affecting its performances on the pitch, but do not underestimate the heroicism of Ireland’s players here. Has everyone forgotten about how the Springboks went down 55 – 3 at Twickenham when James Labuschagne was sent off for a late tackle on England’s Jonny Wilkinson?
With Ireland U20s also defeating the Baby Blacks for the first time and Scotland downing Australia in the Junior World Championship, it seems the tables really are turning in favour of the northern hemisphere. Let us hope this potential paradigm shift is not simply a flash in the pan.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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