Friday, October 19, 2007

Time to Accept the Obvious - England are the Best Team at the Rugby World Cup

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward
Once the penny finally drops, it’s obvious. We’ve spent the past month searching for the best team of the World Cup and they’ve been under our noses all the time.

New Zealand, crying bitter tears at home, are still the best team in the world, just as they always are. The All-Blacks haven’t adjusted to the existence of the World Cup yet, but year by year, now as then, the Silver Fern remains the gold standard. Argentina were brave and heroic, and have a potential genius at stand-off half in Juan-Martin Hernandez, but they were ultimately limited. South Africa are much the stronger team on paper, compared to England, and possess a game-winner in Brian Habana to whose brilliance England cannot hold a tallow candle, but the fact is that since South Africa boxed England’s ears for them in Paris on September 14th, every game for England has been an elimination game for them, and still they march relentlessly on. After a while, it’s not really a co-incidence anymore.

Alex Wyllie is showing poor grace in condemning the English style of play, not least as it’s exactly the style of play that forged the All-Blacks legend. Besides, it’s not as if England are breaking any laws of the game. Consult the rules, and ascertain how many extra points you get for aesthetic impression. None, I think you’ll find. The great characteristics of this England team are their resounding honesty and impeccable bravery. These men do not pretend they are hurt and dive in penalty boxes – rugby is not Steven Gerrard’s game. Instead, they scrum down and maul and ruck with impossible resolution and heroic heart. When the gunsmoke clears and the cannons no longer roar, watch for the white shirts marching grimly on, led by Corry, Shaw and Moody. Martin Corry, who has written such wry columns on the violence of breakdown play in modern professional rugby in the Guardian, is the epitome of the doughty yeoman who conquered at Corunna, Quebec and Cawnpore. He is not for turning.

England, above any team at the tournament, are forged by the events of the tournament; specifically, by the humiliation meted out to them in the Stade de France one month ago, when they were the only team at the tournament to be held scoreless. Once you hit rock bottom you can curl up and die, or you can realise that things can only get better. That’s the exactly the choice England made, to claw their way back up the ladder, rung by painful rung, that team of crocks, cripples and has-beens who don’t know what it is to get beaten.

The Tan burned Cork and hanged Kevin Barry, but he remains, in Kipling’s words, a first-class fighting man. What the Light Brigade looked down on at Balaclava is what England have faced in every game since that mauling under the hooves the Boks, and now they face it again. The monstrous strength of Os du Randt. The best second rows in the world, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the man named for a truck. The shattering and explosive play Schalk Berger, the all-round excellence of Fourie du Preez at scrum-half. And a back three against whom England cannot compare in Habana, Pieterson and Montgomery. Impossible for England to win, so they do only what they can, and what they’ve been doing for this entire World Cup – when Alain Rolland blows his whistle tomorrow night England will lower lance and sabre and charge the guns, just like they do. Theirs not to reason why.

Neil Francis’ condemnation of England’s play in this World Cup on Setanta last weekend was shameful. That he can’t see the pride infusing that team, their refusal to be cowed, is an indictment of the man and he should be deeply ashamed. Pierre Bosquet famously quipped that the Light Brigade’s charge at Balaclava was “magnificent, but not war”; England may not be rugby as Neil Francis’ understands it, but for him to deny the magnificence of the stand they’ve made at this World Cup does Francis no credit at all.

England are only ever one Brian Habana interception away from doom tomorrow – if South Africa score tries, England will be hard pressed to catch them. But if England can impose themselves on South Africa and are still in the game with twenty minutes to go England will win it. An Spailpín has no doubt about that. The ice that runs through Jonny Wilkinson’s veins will grow even colder as he relentlessly directs his men on, rewarding his pack with field position, territory and ultimately points on the board, the sweetest reward of all. Jonny Wilkinson, who looked to have paid for his World Cup medal in 2003 with the rest of his career, has come back from the professional rugby grave to stand on the brink of personally directing England to the first ever back to back World Cups – if you don’t find that awesome and thrilling you should stick to the horror of Tubridy Tonight on Saturday, because you really don’t know what you’re watching. Ask Keith Wood. He sees it too.

If tomorrow evening is a bridge too far for England, it’s hard to deny South Africa the title either. They are a fine and talented team, and Jake White has had to withstand a lot of interference just to keep the show on the road. But for your Spailpín Fánach, England are the story of this World Cup, as they’ve clawed their way back from humiliation on nothing but sheer guts and pride alone. I’m sorry, Tom Barry. Accept my apologies, Dan Breen. Patrick Sarsfield, what can I tell you? I know Cromwell had you poisoned Eoghan Roe, and Oliver Plunkett’s severed head sits in a jar in St Peter’s, Drogheda, as a grim reminder of eight hundred long and dark years, but England are the best team at this World Cup and will win the final, just five days short of St Crispian’s Day. God and Blessed Oliver forgive me.

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