SPIRO: England finally plays real rugby in 2013 Six Nations

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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    Down at Hobart to watch the Rebels v Waratahs friendly, I had a conversation with a rugby tragic who comes from the UK and has been in Australia for some time.

    ‘I love your columns,’ he told me, ‘but you do seem to have it in for British rugby. Why is that?’

    I agreed with him that I have been critical of British rugby, on and off the field of play, for decades. Sometimes, though, as in 2003 I have been extremely generous to what I considered to be one of the great rugby teams in the history of the game, Sir Clive Woodward’s Rugby World Champion England side.

    But in general, let’s be honest, virtually all the time I have been critical. And I explained why to my Hobart friend. To begin with, England, in particular, have played terribly boring rugby, slow, plodding, unnecessarily antagonistic and based around an incessant kicking game.

    I also pointed out that off the field, England or its pretentiously named union The Rugby Football Union (why not the England Rugby Union for goodness sake?) has opposed every attempt from Australia and New Zealand to make the rugby football game just a rugby game, a skilful, athletic, fast, running and handling game where scoring tries are the object of the exercise rather than kicking goals.

    In 1895 The rugby union stalwarts ensured that the northern counties were booted out of the rugby game because players there, mainly miners and factory workers, wanted to be paid during those periods when they were off work because of rugby injuries.

    There was plenty of money in the game to allow this.

    But the public school old boys who lived in London, especially those from Rugby School, killed off the initiative on the grounds that professionalism would corrupt the Corinthian ideals of the rugby game. This was and is a nonsense.

    The Rugby School Old Boys were determined to keep the game as an enclave for the upper middle classes (their class) and even set up a bogus commission in that year to establish the nonsense that William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it at Rugby School in 1823. This supposed event the commission argued gave the old Rugbeians a sort of property and intellectual rights over the game.

    It did not matter that Thomas Hughes, the venerable author of Tom Brown’s School Days, told the commission that Jem Mace was the first to run forward with the ball at Rugby School in the 1840s and that Webb Ellis was actually a cricketer at school.

    The Rugby Football Union since the 1890s has opposed every attempted improvement in the game, including in recent years a rejection of the ELVs rules which would have created only three penalties rather than the current 30 in the ruck and mauls.

    The worst aspect of all this is that this blinkered view saw rugby as a game of set pieces, kicking (football rugby) and the occasional run and try. Stephen Jones rather memorably endorsed this attitude by stating that the perfect rugby match was one played in mud with a 9 – 6 scoreline!

    In New Zealand and Australia, the set pieces are seen as a way of starting play, a means to an end not an end in themselves. And the fastball-in-hand game has generally been seen in these parts as the ideal way of playing the game, and the best way to win matches.

    All this brings us in a round-about way back to England’s performance against Scotland in last weekend’s Six Nations match at Twickenham. And in short, England played as if they were the All Blacks in white kit. This is, of course, the highest praise that can be given right now to a rugby team.

    Owen Farrell, the young flyhalf, kicked twice in the match in general play, the first time 26 minutes into play. For the rest he set up attacks with a fine variety of passes, pop-up, held-back passes and one gem of a long floating pass to an unmarked player out wide.

    England’s set pieces were strong. The forwards were mobile and hunted as a pack. And they cleared the ball out from the rucks and mauls with extreme speed. And when they did Ben Youngs, the halfback, cleared straight away.

    There is a 5-second rule in place now for clearing a ball lying at the back of the ruck. Youngs never waited even a second.

    As soon as the ball was clear, he got it away. The result was that England’s attacks were wave after wave of probing runs, sometimes the forwards and then the outside backs. It was exciting, thrilling stuff.

    And for someone who has believed that this sort of play is unattainable for England sides, except on rare occasions, it was instructive to see how effective it was for England.

    The sign of a side on the up is that new players can come in and make a mark. I’d never heard of Bill Twelvetrees, the inside centre. But he was outstanding in making breaks, passing and setting up rucks to maintain the momentum of the England attacks.

    This is the second successive time that this England team has played a splendid, real rugby match. Last year England monstered the All Blacks, again at Twickenham, in a manner that rarely happens to the New Zealanders.

    Both these impressive victories by England, against the All Blacks and against Scotland, were at their Twickenham fortress. The next test of England’s willingness to play real rugby comes at the weekend at Dublin against Ireland.

    Ireland were excellent against a Wales side that has lost all its form since the beginning of 2012 when they were the Grand Slam victors. The Irish loose forwards were particularly impressive.

    And Brian O’Driscoll was back to his magical best, even playing scrum half when the Ireland half was in the sin bin.

    England’s test is to have the courage to play its ball-in-hand game away from home. And against quicker, better and more fiery side than Scotland (disappointingly) proved to be.

    I made the fearless prediction that France would win the 2013 Six Nations tournament. I was careful to ensure that I did not predict a Grand Slam for them, though.

    As it happened, they were beaten by an Italian side that ran brilliantly from broken play. And came back from being behind to surge to a well-deserved, if unexpected, victory.

    The French players looked cumbersome, physically and mentally. Coach St Andre has promised that his team will not play was poorly again in the tournament.

    Well, the test is on the field rather than words from the coach. France have the chance of partial redemption in Paris against Wales.

    Italy travel to Murrayfield to continue their quest of successive Six Nations victories against Scotland.

    But the match of the round is Ireland v England, and its pointers to the how the British and Irish Lions might play in their series in June against the Wallabies.

    Spiro Zavos
    Spiro Zavos

    Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.

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