Eddie Jones: Springboks were scared by the Islanders
Calling the shots
Saturday 08 November 2008
One of my abiding memories of working with the Springboks during the World Cup in 2007 was seeing some of the younger players return to the dressing room after their quarter-final victory over Fiji and openly admitting that they had been physically frightened – not by the forwards they had just encountered, but by the backs. It was not the sort of thing I ever expected to hear from a group of South African rugby men, who are not exactly shrinking violets when it comes to the confrontational side of the sport, but I could understand where they were coming from. Seru Rabeni? Kameli Ratuvou? Vilimoni Delasau? Believe me, I'd have been scared too.
The Fijians, along with their South Seas neighbours from Samoa and Tonga, are big; many of them weigh in at well over 100kg, which is pretty substantial in anyone's book. What is more, they run fast, usually in a dead straight line, irrespective of who might be in front of them. Oh, one last thing: they also play rugby with no thought whatsoever for their personal well-being.
Playing as the Pacific Islands, these people could do some damage to England at Twickenham this afternoon. Certainly, Martin Johnson and his coaching team will have to think very carefully how to approach the game, not least as it will be played under very different laws to those in force at the World Cup last year.
Back then, there was an obvious way for England, strong up front as they were, to play the two island teams in their pool, Samoa and Tonga. Aside from creating pressure at the scrum and line-out, they were able to maul and drive them off the field. Now, under the Experimental Law Variations, there is next to no value in setting up mauls, and the driving game has diminished.
Even the scrums are less dependable than they were a year ago, because the number of set-pieces varies wildly from match to match. So, England must decide.
Do they let Danny Cipriani off the leash at outside-half, go open and take it to the islanders with ball in hand? I can imagine their new attack coach, Brian Smith, being tempted by the challenge, despite the high-risk element attached to it. Or do they go for the strangulation option? That would involve a lot of emphasis on the line-out – particularly in contesting their opponents' ball – supported by an intelligent kicking game.
The latter option seems the most likely, but this too has its dangers. Kick loosely to a Rabeni or a Ratuvou, and you'll find the ball being run back at you at considerable velocity. If you're going to put boot to ball against these blokes, you have to do it with precision. England will need to mix up their kicks to deny their opponents space and prevent them developing momentum. Once the Islanders find some rhythm, they can be next to impossible to stop. I refer you again to that Fiji match in Marseilles, when, for about 20 minutes in the second half, the Boks were seriously at risk of being dumped out of the competition.
I'm delighted to see the Pacific Islands team here, playing high-quality fixtures that will, I hope, benefit the rugby economy in the South Seas.
The socio-economic realities of life in the islands makes it desperately difficult to build a thriving professional game there. If this kind of trip increases the profile of union in that part of the world and generates some new money into the bargain, it will help these incredibly gifted rugby communities go at least some of the way to fulfilling their vast potential.
It is possible that a touring side of this calibre will soon get close to beating a major rugby nation. I'm not sure they can do it this time round, but I am certain of this: the richer nations owe it to the game to help the islands with their development. If we don't, we will all be the poorer for our neglect.
Eddie Jones is Saracens director of rugby and you can see his side in action against Gloucester in the Guinness Premiership at Vicarage Road on Sunday 16 November, kick-off 3pm.
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