When Eddie Jones looks back on his first weekend as English rugby’s lord and master, he will remember it as one to forget. Henry Slade’s orthopaedic trauma, Alex Corbisiero’s umpteenth visit to the operating theatre, George Ford’s trials and tribulations in delivering just about the worst performance of his professional career… right now, the new head coach must be wondering exactly why he traded his morning coffee at the foot of Table Mountain for a diet of scrag-end meat on the rectangular mudheaps of the Premiership.
If he also finds himself reflecting on the place of the scrum in the modern European game – or even on the point of it – he will not be alone. There was a record crowd at the Recreation Ground, a significant percentage of whom were sufficiently cauliflower-faced to have spent time in the front row during their playing days, and if most of them were profoundly disappointed by the dolorous nature of Bath’s 13-11 defeat by Northampton, they were even more crestfallen by events at the set-piece.
Correction: make that “the non-event at the set-piece”. Mike Ford, the Bath boss, is no one’s idea of a leading authority on life in the darkened recesses – he spent his active career as a rugby league scrum-half, not a rugby union prop – but like the rest of the unfortunates who wasted valuable pre-Christmas shopping time on Saturday afternoon, he knew a turkey when he saw one. And this turkey was a pre-stuffed 25-pounder with every last vestige of flavour frozen out of it.
There were countless resets, innumerable free kicks and more full penalties than you could shake a stick at. It was not wholly, or even mostly, the fault of Craig Maxwell-Keys, a referee so ridiculously fresh-faced that he must have spent his previous career as a scientist unlocking the secrets of eternal youth. Maxwell-Keys may not have had the foggiest idea of who was doing what to whom at close quarters, but he was surely right in concluding that the Northampton pack were the dominant force. Had it been otherwise, the underrated Saints flanker Jamie Gibson and the busy hooker Mike Haywood would not have had such eye-catching afternoons in the loose.
If the fault lay anywhere, it was with the front-rowers themselves – a duplicitous bunch of hoodwinking kidologists if ever there was one – and still more with a system designed to reduce to a minimum the brass-necked chicanery that has been part and parcel of the scrummager’s art since time immemorial and now achieving the precise opposite. Ford put forward the proposition that the set-piece was both deciding and ruining too many games, and precious few of those within earshot were of a mind to disagree.
It is hard to imagine now, but the scrum used to be a simple affair: trawl through YouTube for footage of the All Blacks’ Test series in South Africa in 1976 if confirmation is required. Instead of going through a heavily regulated “cadence” of crouching and binding and setting – a process so long-winded that the participants could exchange phone numbers and discuss the finer points of Immanuel Kant’s critique of pure reason while awaiting the feeding of the ball – the forwards simply folded themselves into the engagement the moment they arrived without the slightest interference from the official. Everything else about the game back then was three times slower than today’s version… except the scrum, which was 10 times quicker.
Maybe George Ford, the England outside-half, decided that a masterclass in game management would have looked out of place amid the direness of it all. He certainly made a good job of entering into the spirit of the piece. There were forward passes; there was an overcooked restart that found touch on the full; there was a perfectly flighted pass to his fellow red-rose midfielder Luther Burrell, who happened to be playing for the opposition on this occasion and duly touched down for the winning score.
From Ford Junior’s perspective, it was as well that Jones chose to watch the Harlequins-London Irish contest in south-west London rather than hike down the M4. But the new “numero uno” is a certified workaholic who will already have watched the relevant video footage, and will therefore have noted that the Bath wing Semesa Rokoduguni performed rather better than his more celebrated clubmate – so much better, indeed, that there is now no earthly reason why he should not be included in the England squad for the forthcoming Six Nations.
Jones has a liking for big wings – when he took his native Australia to the World Cup final in 2003, he picked Lote Tuqiri and Wendell Sailor in the wide positions – and he is even keener on strong-running natural finishers armed with a sledgehammer hand-off. Rokoduguni’s second-half try was a classic of the genre. Freed by the excellent Anthony Watson, who may well turn out to be a better England full-back than he is a wing, he swatted Ben Foden aside as though he were an irritating gnat before outpacing George North to the right corner.
“Everyone is fighting for an England position – everyone is pushing hard,” remarked the Fijian, who made a single international appearance for his adopted country against the All Blacks a little over a year ago and has barely registered on the red-rose radar since. “Am I a better player than I was in 2014? It’s hard to say because of the way we’re playing as a club right now.”
Here was modesty of the most undue variety. Bath, worryingly lightweight up front in the continuing absence of the lock Dave Attwood, have slipped a long way off the standards they set for themselves last season, but the same cannot be said for their right wing. If, as Jones’ predecessor Stuart Lancaster frequently argued, England must go for size out wide if they are to maximise the creative spark of smaller players in midfield, the answer is obvious.
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