As the Rugby World Cup hots up and the intensity grows, Peter Florence continues his snapshot vignettes in response to the tournament’s big moments.
CHWARAE TEG: ENGLAND ARE THROUGH. GOOD. HEAR ME OUT, NO REALLY…
Here’s a list: Antoine Dupont, Tadhg Furlong, Siya Kolisi, Tadhg Beirne, Cheslin Kolbe, Waisea Nayacalevu, Gregory Aldritt. A definition of “world class’ drawn from: could oust the incumbent in any and every team on the planet. If you loosen it up to, say from those appearing at the RWC, would arguably make a World XV, maybe: Thomas Ramos, Cheslin Kolbe, Jonathan Danty, Waisea Nayacalevu, Damian Penaud, Jonny Sexton/Damien Mackenzie, Antoine Dupont, Gregory Aldritt, Jac Morgan/Peter Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Tadhg Beirne, Eben Etzebeth, Tadhg Furlong, Rónan Kelleher, Uini Antonio. Grab a beer, pull up a chair, let’s argue…. but you get my drift. The bar is pretty high.
Here’s a list of players considered world class by the English Rugby media and fanbase: Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Ellis Genge, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Curry, Jamie George. Today, I’m not sure any of these guys get into any of their Six Nations rivals’ XVs. Not one of them would make the bench for England 2003.
By all accounts, Owen Farrell is a lovely guy. Welsh Lions big him up as a decent bloke and a dedicated team player. He’s a really good line and goal kicker, and he passes long and accurately off either hand. Here’s the thing: For a decade and more he’s been saddled with expectations and comparisons to Jonny Wilkinson, another lovely bloke by the by, who kicked England to their finest rugby hour in 2003. The problem with this is that it’s just not fair, and it misses the point of Jonny Wilkinson. He was a good kicker. No Neil Jenkins, but he was good. What he was brilliant at was cool thinking, subtlety, peripheral vision that knew not just how but when to pass, and he was perhaps the best defensive 10 who ever played. Wilkinson’s competitiveness was not relentless aggression but unbending will and constant strategic recalibration. He also had the privilege of playing behind Martin Johnson’s irresistible pack, being served by Matt Spit-Second Dawson, and serving Will there’s a Way Greenwood and Jason Robinson – who could dance toe to toe with David Campese and Gerald Davies.
What’s my point? Well, Farrell’s a liability. Poor tackler. Too many penalties. Too many cards. But his absence made England much better to watch. Ford is a much closer model of a Wilkinsonian catalyst (though the aptest similarity is with our 80s vintage 10, Gareth Davies). And Farrell watched from the stands. The footage of Farrell watching was as compelling as Ford’s catching and kicking. He even smiled a couple of times. When he returned to 10 for Chile he was fluent, and was just as fluent when the three 10ers were playing on field together. It was good to watch. It looked fun. It looked a little like they were channelling pomp and prime New Zealand. It looked very much the fulfilment of Squidge’s love letter to Eddie Jones early last year.
England are not going to win the world cup. Not this year, not in 2027. But they can move on from the yoke of expectation and legacy. There’s a possibility, remote though it might be, that they just might play their Chile game against Fiji, and wouldn’t that gladden the heart? Being cosplay 2003 ain’t going to work, but becoming a post-Farrell-ban England 2023, even with Farrell at 12 might just make them happy, make their fans stop crapping on them, and even make them friends.
We might yet play England in the last week of the tournament. If we do, I hope they play their best game, and that Farrell is playing and dipping and that no-one gets hurt. And that we play our best game too. Cos that’ll work out just fine.
More likely there’ll be two re-matches for the ages that week – Fiji vs Wales and South Africa vs Ireland. But that’s all in the hands of a Parisian surgeon.
[Footnote: this article complies with the statutory Beaumont clause obligation to mention 2003 at least three times per 600 words in any commentary on English rugby. The rights of the author to cite cliches are reserved and regretted, but not deeply].
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