Magical memories of 2012 - Rugby Union: 'It was eerie seeing England sticking it to the silver fern'
1 December: Manu Tuilagi waltzes to the try line as England smash New Zealand
Rugby folk with a beating heart should not, if truth be told, look too far past the events of 16 November in Cardiff for the year's highlight: a Friday night rising of downtrodden, put-upon underdogs who travelled halfway round the world to bite one of the hands that had fed them nothing but scraps from the rich man's table. Samoa's magnificent victory over Wales, the reigning Grand Slam champions and one of the eight "foundation unions" who continue to control the politics of world rugby, was enough to make grown men cry... with joy.
But it is to another Samoan that we turn for the most startling oval-ball moment of 2012, albeit a Samoan clad in English white. When Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball from Leicester via the faraway lava-field village of Fatausi-Fogapoa, intercepted a desperate pass from the brilliant New Zealand forward Kieran Read and rolled off into the wide blue yonder before slowing to a jog and strolling across the All Black line to complete the try that would give his adopted country a record victory over the best team in the sport, many in the Twickenham crowd wondered whether they had lost their marbles.
Not everyone appreciated Tuilagi's nonchalant score. Eddie Jones, the Australian coach who guided his home country to a World Cup final in 2003, helped the Springboks to the title four years later and is now charged with creating a Japan team strong enough to reach the knockout stage of the tournament when they host it in 2019, used the words "disrespectful" and "arrogant" in his summary of events, criticising the centre for not making the ensuing conversion as easy as possible by straining every sinew to finish behind the sticks. While we cannot know for sure, it may be that Owen Farrell, the man saddled with adding the extra points, and Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, saw it the same way, but chose to keep their opinions to themselves.
Yet this is a victory over the All Blacks we're talking about – something that has always been as rare as rocking-horse manure – and a victory of unprecedented proportions at that. There was something eerie, something discombobulating, something scarcely believable about watching an England player sticking it to the silver fern as if he were playing a common or garden game of sevens. Opportunities to humiliate New Zealand come around once in an eternity. It would have been shameful to let it slip by.
Tuilagi's previous experience of that country and its rugby, at the end of England's miserable World Cup campaign last year, had been memorable for different reasons: after performing his "Manu Overboard" trick by leaping into Auckland harbour from a ferry, he quickly found himself helping the local authorities with their inquiries before heading for the airport and the desolate flight home. There was nothing desolate about this latest episode. Disrespectful? Perhaps. Arrogant? Maybe. Worth it? To hell with it: yes.
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