David Flatman: Lancaster's beaten battalion have team spirit to spare
From the Front Row: With the stunning Owen Farrell as their talisman, England were magnificent
Sunday 26 February 2012
Despite being a rather emotional old bear, I have never felt my soul stir at the use of purportedly evocative buzzwords. "Passion" is a word that is often uttered on days like yesterday and while I recognise its presence it has, for me, always looked like a sensation that disappears with fatigue. "Playing for the badge", too, has become a somewhat diluted concept since squads went global and residencies became blurred.
I say this with no sense of regret. I like the way rugby is going. Sure it has its flaws but the game, albeit with a portion of its romance dissolved, is miles ahead of where it was just a sporting generation ago. One thing that has not changed, however, is the notion that the team most likely to win is the team containing the most players willing to die before letting down their mates. This is the foundation of the game – of team sport – whether you are turning out for England or the Old Boys XV.
So what counts, talent aside, is the collective will to win. This level of desire has to be in-built – almost genetic – but it must be nurtured if it is to manifest itself as sporting excellence, and this is all about the culture in which it exists.
Yesterday we saw physical evidence that the environment created very recently by the new English management team is having the desired effect. We knew Wales had bundles of togetherness and belief. That much was never in doubt. But England, absolute underdogs, showed in defeat a level of mental steel and stubbornness that ought to leave all of their supporters feeling secure in the knowledge that, before long, this team will be challenging for major honours.
I have played in teams with my greatest buddies and battled to win a game. I have played in sides that, away from training, were frankly cliquey and socially separated and yet felt invincible come kick-off. So the "we're all best mates" quotes never meant much to me; how you work together on the pitch affects the rugby.
After the first 20 minutes – with George North steaming around the park like a be-jerseyed missile, making all around him look positively Lilliputian – I just wanted to see how these new kids on the English block would react.
With the stunning Owen Farrell as their talisman, they were magnificent. By this I do not mean they played the best rugby seen at HQ in years, nor am I commending them for merely refusing to cave in. That is the least we expect.
What they did was absorb all their opponents had and when any opportunity became apparent, they attacked it with bravery and commitment. Young and oblivious to the pressure of the stage? Maybe. Teeming with the confidence afforded to men backed so absolutely and unconditionally by their team-mates and coaches? More likely.
The fact that Wales won says a huge amount for their character and for the culture created by the whole team. They are stylish, they have a gaggle of physics-defying behemoths who can run and pass like the heroes of old, and they even have a couple of Valleys monsters in the pack who would look at home in their own horror movies.
But this is not what defines them; they play with such determination – not passion, not fire, as these suggest recklessness – that you know they will never, ever give up.
Lots of their game was, actually, quite predictable. Their forwards wrapped continuously around thesame way from breakdowns and were passed to by the scrum-half before running into the waiting English wall. Basic stuff, but extremely frustrating for the defenders – they see so little of the ball, and it is also bloody tiring.
Wales were given a fright but had the class and stamina to withstand the blows. England must and will look at their conquerors and learn.
A Welsh Grand Slam is now a real prospect. It's not a bad shift Warren Gatland has put in over the bridge. But watching that game and seeing England perform as they did, you know – you just know – that this team will be good. Hell, they are already good; they will be special. I can just feel it.
There I go, getting all emotional again.
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