The Calvin Report: No contest as ultimate warrior tames beast
Bloodied and bandaged, Tuilagi triumphs over Bastareaud in heavyweight clash that highlights the modern game's obsession with collisions and brute force
Sunday 24 February 2013
The blood stained the left side of his shirt from neck to breast. His biceps bulged, his head was swathed in a bandage and his socks lolled around his ankles. Manu Tuilagi presented the image of a warrior and the Twickenham crowd duly fell at his feet.
Men like him populate the mythology of international rugby. They are tribal totems, symbols of virility, resilience and fortitude. Their reputation goes before them and reveals the character flaws of opponents in pivotal passages of play. Tuilagi scored the only try of another remorseless England performance.
It was another demonstration of the strength in depth that makes a first English Grand Slam for a decade a probability, rather than a possibility. He also won the game within the game.
Mathieu Bastareaud, a squat, brooding figure with the taut shoulders of a weightlifter, had been billed as his nemesis. So much for all the predictions and macho posturing.
The Toulon centre, supposedly Mike Tyson reincarnate, was closer in spirit to Audley Harrison. He failed to punch anywhere near his considerable weight and was substituted, without acclamation, seven minutes from the end.
The Beast was brushed aside contemptuously, and even upstaged by a moment of beauty from his partner Wesley Fofana, a man he could break in two and use as a toothpick. France were given a moment of hope by Fofana's frolic through a series of missed tackles, but ended the game in familiar disarray.
Size matters, these boys would give the Incredible Hulk an inferiority complex. They are a cross between gym bunnies and lab rats, hugely powerful creatures whose muscular frames are a testament to nuanced nutrition and the subtleties of sports science.
It was instructive, in the build-up to the most eagerly anticipated of Six Nations contests, to watch that timeless try by the French coach, Philippe Saint-André, against England at a pre-corporate Twickenham in 1991. The fluidity, imagination and sheer nerve of the move was mesmeric, but the body shape of the players was equally striking.
They were recognisable as normal human beings, strong and sinewy rather than the hulking, heavy-duty athletes on show yesterday. The 1990s featured lighthouses, rather than brick outhouses. Fitness and physical durability has already been identified as an area of potential advantage in the build-up to the 2015 World Cup.
There is no point in being coy about it. The collisions between behemoths like Tuilagi and Bastareaud generate an almost primeval excitement. The impact of human missiles, meeting in midfield, causes a collective intake of breath.
The crowd had to wait 22 minutes for its first trial of strength. There was a murmur of anticipation as spectators were two steps ahead of a move which climaxed with Tuilagi ploughing through Bastareaud and two other Frenchmen. A second run through the gain-line, legs pumping and eyes ablaze, was wasted.
The crowd were not impressed by the weakness which allowed France to eke out a narrow half-time lead, but growled their satisfaction as Tuilagi swooped, with surprising suppleness, to collect a low, bouncing ball some 40 metres from the French line. His acceleration was instant and decisive.
His domination of Bastareaud was completed when he bullocked through and over him a second time. The Frenchman was taken off immediately after conceding the penalty which enabled Toby Flood to make the game safe.
Twickenham is all the better for being annexed from the Nanny state. Its visitors imbibe a month's worth of alcoholic units in an afternoon and totter home replete, anaesthetised. The violence is theatrical and, since it is all reserved for the pitch, delivered by proxy. The thrill of combat is vicarious.
Yet there is a darker side to the game's thirst for individual confrontations, those bone-juddering, brain-shuddering hits. Concussion rates have been rising and the insecurities of professional sport mean some players are tempted to play down the consequences.
The Rugby Football Union, to their credit, seek to educate, especially at junior level. Coaching resources include guidance on potential concussion, with 10 symptoms and a series of questions to be asked of anyone who appears groggy.
These are: Which ground are we at? Which team are we playing today? Which half is it? Who are you marking? Which team scored last? Which team did we play last week? Did we win last week?
Victory, in sport can come at a forbidding price. American Football is convulsed by the long term implications of physical duress. Persistent head impacts increase the risk of a specific form of dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It can lead to other forms of dementia including Alzheimer's. Evidence from other physically challenging sports is accumulating.
In Australia tonight, a TV programme presented by the former Wallaby, Peter Fitzsimmons, will present evidence of widespread problems in Aussie Rules football and both rugby codes.
Doctors warn of the long-term damage inflicted by "sub-concussive impacts". These are the hits which sting and stun but don't knock the victim out. They are an occupational hazard for people like Tuilagi.
Truth be told, the blood yesterday, which seeped from his wound, was less dramatic than it looked. He had earned the right to live for the moment and took full advantage of it.
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