David Flatman: Southerners aren't all soft, only Aussies
From the Front Row: Autumn Tests were the best since the last World Cup but All-Blacks remain the true test of quality
Sunday 05 December 2010
Southerners are supposed to be soft, right? Well, could somebody please contact the All Blacks and Springboks and request they relearn their roles? You see I'd hoped these men would step off the plane at Heathrow, be hit by a chilly southwesterly and immediately begin pining for home. Sadly, my hopes were not realised.
This series of autumn internationals were, to me, more interesting than any other Test matches we have seen since the last World Cup. The All Blacks arrived with their famous aura badly dented after a loss to Australia and the Boks only brought half a team. The Aussies, on the other hand, were still stinging from their defeat to England in Sydney last June. So for once, no team seemed unbeatable.
Predictably, though, the Kiwis rode roughshod over everyone. This isn't to say they crushed all before them – in England's case, far from it – but the ease with which they seemed able to knock it up a gear or two to get the job done was quite frightening.
I sat in a corporate box at Twickenham with the injured Riki Flutey and watched his reaction as Sonny Bill Williams, on debut, cut our defence in half before offering up a scoring pass in the first 20 minutes. What left Riki's mouth gaping wasn't the line or even the pass; it was how simple Williams had made it look. At most he was running at 80 per cent and the offload, well, he might as well have been throwing his dog a bone. "This is Test rugby, bro," said Flutey, "and the guy's not even sweating."
We were all thinking the same thing at this point: England could well get a hammering here. But whatever Martin Johnson and his coaching team said at half-time worked and the All Blacks came back out to face a different team. One or two defensive wrinkles – easily visible from the sideline – were ironed out at the interval and the holes disappeared. And England bashed them. It wasn't enough to win, but it was enough to send away the faithful with hope in their hearts.
A week later and that hope turned into elation. The Wallabies were, in every facet of the game, butchered at Twickenham. The big collision at scrum time never materialised but England didn't let this distract them from tearing their opponents to pieces. It looked almost as though nobody had told the visitors that this match was actually full contact; they seemed to be playing touch for the most part.
With Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton operating on a different level and Nick Easter beating two or three tackles per carry, England brushed past one of the best sides in the world without looking back. The Aussies looked desolate, the English looked electrified.
But nobody in Camp England had lost sight of what was coming; they knew the Samoa match was going to be a rough day at the office and they were right. I watched the match with Olly Barkley and after half an hour we both looked at each other and the exact same words came out of our mouths in chorus: "Seilala Mapusua is unbelievable."
The London Irish centre and Samoan folk hero was defending on a level I'm not sure I've ever seen before. At one point the Samoans defended for eight straight phases without conceding more than a metre and Mapusua made five of those eight tackles. This work ethic did not fade and by the end he looked like he had been trampled by a bull. But he still smiled and tackled. Given their lack of possession Samoa were never likely to record a famous victory, and England showed fantastic composure and heart to beat them.
Then came what was, for me, the most captivating match of the autumn. The Springboks arrived in London like a wounded animal. The wound was inflicted by Scotland and it was deep. But the wounds healed and the South Africans arrived in full battle mode.
Some of the sheer physical force on show was magnificent and it acted as stark reminder as to why these chaps have "world champions" printed on their team stationery. Their loss at Murrayfield was humiliating and served to put them under a monumental amount of pressure at home.
How did they react under such duress? By producing one of the great displays of simple, confrontational rugby we have seen in a decade. Juan Smith and Pierre Spies roamed around the Twickenham pitch like mythical beasts, created with the sole purpose of physical domination in mind.
To see Spies pick up the ball at the base of a ruck and run into three players and barely slow down was intimidating, but to see him do it five more times was breathtaking. Physically, they are leading the world again.
So the All Blacks quietly boarded the plane home having won all four from four. We may have beaten the team that beat the All Blacks but, as yet, we haven't quite managed to beat them ourselves for a good while. This will need to change if our fortunes are to improve. The Boks tend to beat them with grunt, the Aussies with fleet of foot. I think I saw the makings of England's winning formula in the second half at Twickers: a good bit of northern grit should do the trick.
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