Adam Hathaway looks at the build up to a match which could decide the Six Nations, and at what the coaches are saying, while remembering a hero of one of the strangest eras in English rugby.
If you had offered the majority of the 82,000 punters at Twickenham on Sunday a 44-8 win over France they would have bitten your hand off at the elbow but there was a strangely subdued atmosphere at the final whistle.
There was a strangely subdued atmosphere for most of the second half actually, and on the walk back to Richmond Station, but there is good reason for that. The game was dead and buried inside half an hour as soon as England’s Jonny May had gone over for his third try.
France were not great, our late colleague Jean Cormier of Le Parisien who was toasted by the hacks before the match, would have been appalled at some of the selections handed out by Jacques Brunel. The French coach managed to pick centres on the wing, Yoann Huget a bloke who has not played a Test at full-back since 2013 at errr………..full-back and England’s kicking game ripped the French back three to shreds and killed off the atmosphere.
All the pre-match talk about the French slowing down the game, legally or illegally, went out of the window as Owen Farrell, May, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and co ran the French off their feet. And they did not take their foot off the French throats, even after scoring 30 points before the break, and recorded the biggest win over their Gallic rivals since 1911 which was only France’s second year in the competition.
One thing that won’t be subdued, hopefully for RugbySpy and our colleagues in the scribbling trade is the build up to England’s next match, against Wales, in Cardiff.
In the past Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland have lobbed enough grenades from both sides of the Severn Bridge to keep our editors more than happy but the last couple of years it has all been a bit tame. Apparently they get on, which is a shame, and even went out for a curry before the Six Nations launch last month but let’s hope they can the friendship and get on with the hype even though the game, a week on Saturday, hardly needs it.
England are top of the table, two wins from two and 10 points from 10. Wales are second in the table, with two wins from two and eight points from 10 and the winner of the game on 23 February will surely have one hand on the Six Nations trophy. They are the only teams who can claim a grand slam.
Wales also have the added incentive of going for their 12th win on the trot, their current run of 11 victories is their best since 1910 and the days of Dicky Owen, Jack Bancroft and Billy Trew. Not even the Gareth Edwards-inspired sides of the 1970s could equal that and that was something Jones highlighted, tongue slightly in cheek, on Sunday night. He also referenced England’s poor 2018 and said he wasn’t worried about going to Cardiff.
“All I know is that we are playing against the greatest Welsh side ever,” Jones told us. “So that is enough for me. I hear all the commentary and that is what everyone is saying.
“Any time England play Wales it is a special match. Because of the history of the two countries and the history of rugby between the two countries – it’s special. You have a Welsh team that is doing so well and if I remember the comments, we weren’t doing so well and the gap between us was massive. So let’s see how big the gap is next Saturday.
“I have never found it to be a fortress. You go there and it is a tough game, they are a good side, loud crowd – but it has never been a fortress to me.” Decent enough for starters.
Jones has named his best available side for the wins over Ireland and France and has had reasonable luck, barring Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and recently Maro Itoje, with injuries.
Gatland has used a different strategy for the Six Nations, treating the last couple of weeks like a World Cup. After their bonkers win in Paris Wales did not go home, instead they went to Nice for a training camp, bringing grins from the journalists who cover Wales, before heading to Rome.
For Saturday’s 26-15 win over Italy Gatland made 10 changes from the side that had beaten France replicating the chopping and changing that might be needed in Japan later in the year. He has got a few selection issues, not least who he plays at fly-half, and the team that runs out against England will bear little relation to the one that was seen at the weekend. So don’t be fooled by Wales’ stop start performance at the Stadio Olympico. It might just have been all part of the Gatland master plan but if he thinks Wales will get into the England match undetected he has got another thing coming.
“We have probably helped ourselves a little bit by not playing as well as we could have and as a result everyone will start talking England up,” he said.
“A lot of people will write us off, which is a good position to be in. Hopefully we’ll go under the radar. You’re not always brilliant and we weren’t. We will be a lot better against England.
“We didn’t speak about the record at all this week but we will probably talk about it before England. If this group of players achieve that, it’ll be something nobody can take away from them.”
Media activities are slightly less frantic in this fallow week for the tournament but the two head coaches will speaking at least once before the match and have plenty of opportunities to wind the whole thing up. Let’s hope Fast Eddie does not stick to what he said on Sunday evening when he told us this.
“The only message we can send is Saturday week. We will have a message on Saturday week, but we will leave it until then,” he promised.
Pull the other one Eddie.
The death of Jan Webster, the former Moseley scrum-half last week, aged 72, was a reminder of some of the weirdest times in English rugby, and how weird were they?
Webster, who stood just 5ft 5in, played 11 Tests for England between 1972 and 1975 and lost eight of them. England could hardly buy a victory in the-then Five Nations and finished bottom in 1972, equal first, or fifth if you are contrary, in 1973 when all five teams ended level, fifth in 1974 and, yep you guessed it, fifth in 1975.
It was ridiculous.
England had players like fly-half Alan Old, the brilliant Lions hooker John Pullin, a rampaging Andy Ripley, what a hero he was, Tony Neary, David Duckham, Stack Stevens, Roger Uttley and the rest at their disposal. Apart from the great Wales teams of those days they should have been dusting teams in their sleep. But it was a different age.
In between that remarkable roll call of shame Webster was involved in two of the most remarkable England wins in their history. In 1972 England toured South Africa and won five provincial matches, drawing 13-13 with the mighty Northern Transvaal before heading to the spiritual home of the Springboks for the sole Test match – Ellis Park in Johannesburg. And wins in Johannesburg don’t grow on trees.
But England, with Alec Lewis and John Elders a tiny management staff, compared to the armies of staff employed these days, rolled the Boks of Piet Grayling, Jan Ellis and the brilliantly named hooker Piston van Wyk over 18-9.
A year later they trumped that.
England, with Elders still coaching, beat Fiji by a point, in Suva, before losing to Taranaki, Wellington and Canterbury and being written off by the Kiwi public, not for the last time.
Then they headed to the spiritual home of the All Blacks, Eden Park in Auckland, for the sole Test.
And they handed New Zealand a 16-10 beating thanks to tries from Neary, Stevens and wing Peter Squires and a couple of kicks from full-back Peter Rossborough. Reports suggest that Webster had a hand in all three scores and a quick look at YouTube confirmed it.
This was the New Zealand of Ian Kirkpatrick, Sid Going and Bryan Williams and Webster helped put them away.
And England have not beaten New Zealand at Eden Park or South Africa at Ellis Park since. Webster was also on the bench for England’s 20-3 win over Australia at Twickenham in November 1973 – Steve Smith started at scrum-half – as the Red Rosers, and their skipper Pullin, pulled off a notable hat-trick of southern hemisphere scalps.
In later life Webster was president of Moseley but in an earlier life he had beaten New Zealand and South Africa away from home at their statement stadiums.
And there are not too many Englishmen who can say that.