January 20, 2021

England leading the way for the future of rugby?

4 min read

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I am one of those fanatical supporters of the All Blacks whom I believed are God-chosen to be the masters of the rugby universe.

They are mortals, of course, and they are not invincible, but they are undoubtedly the superpower in the game. They are in a class above the rest.

In fact, they are nested in a pedestal beyond the reach of most of the lesser teams.

They have won three World Cup finals already and they were on the verge of winning their fourth, or so we thought as they were the champions in 1987,2011 and 2015.

We were expecting them to make history as the only team to win three consecutive times in the World Cup.

However, they faltered on Saturday (Oct 26) and faltered spectacularly. For someone who has been following every move they made – the haka notwithstanding – I wished they had played differently. Or at least played the kind of games they normally played.

They were simply too sloppy, too careless and, worse, too predictable in Yokohama. The English won because they are simply too good. In fact, outstanding.

What went wrong? A myriad of reasons. To start with it was sacrilegious of Steve Hansen to mess with the All Blacks winning formula.

Meddling with a winning concoction is the biggest mistake Hansen did. Tactically, he got it all wrong. We could sense from the first minute that his formation was flawed, his tactics backfired, his players in disarray.

The All Blacks are known for their attacking style, yet on Saturday, they were reduced to dishevelled, frantic and clueless attackers. Most of the time, they were reluctant defenders, not knowing what to do when facing the ferocity of the English attack.

England was simply, fearless. The players were obsessed, so to speak. That alone won the game. Facing the All Blacks is a nightmare for most teams, but the young English players knew there is only one way to win; to fight and fight hard. They did, they came, they attacked, they won.

They had nothing to lose anyway. The pressure was on the All Blacks. Call it the scoreboard pressure, or the fact that the All Blacks can’t lose a game against England, especially in a World Cup.

Ask anyone before the game who would win, I bet nine out 10 would say the All Blacks. The English players knew that, and that they had nothing to prove. Only to win.

And if my record is correct, since their first encounter in 1905, they have played 41 games before the Saturday semi-final. Out of that, eight were won by England and one ended in a draw and the last time they met in 2018, England lost 21-24.

As for the last time England won against the All Blacks, that was in December 2012 at Twickenham, London, with a score of 38-21.

This time, the All Blacks came in with an 18-match unbeaten streak against England.

It doesn’t matter now how they won 71-9 against Namibia or 63-0 against Canada or the stunning display they showed against South Africa on Sept 21 or against Ireland on Oct 19 when they won with scores of 29-13 and 46-14, respectively.

It was also partly a psychological war – the English players were in a “V” formation when the haka was performed. It must have been disorienting for the All Blacks, for they were not sure whom to face during the war-cry ritual as English captain Owen Farrell was sending a message to them, that “we are not intimidated.”

Perhaps the haka took its toll on the players as their defence was already in disarray in the first minute and Manu Tuilagi had his first try in the second. Had another try by Sam Underhill been allowed, it would have a bigger lead before half-time.

There was another try by Ben Youngs, which was ruled out by the referee. It was painful to watch the gods of rugby struggling even to pass the ball or to win a corner throw. It went downhill from then on.

As much as I am fanatical about the All Blacks, I knew something is brewing in the English camp. I have heard that the head coach Eddie Jones has built a young team.

I was pleased to know that he named England’s second-youngest ever starting team (the 15) at a World Cup.

The average age this time is 26 years and 170 days. Tom Curry is 21 years old when he was named, together with Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga, they are the new and perhaps the future faces of rugby. Seven of England players are 26 and below.

He made a bold move, favouring youth over experience. The World Cup is not the place for experimentation, especially when they are facing a force like the All Blacks. But his gamble paid off.

Perhaps England is showing the way for future rugby. A youngish, rejuvenated, stylish game that has eluded the “old rugby” style.

We need new faces and fresh legs to bring rugby to the next level. Other countries must follow suit, start rethinking the whole game plan for the future.

As much as it was painful to see Kieran Read’s bloodied face facing the camera after the shock loss, I believe there is a silver lining to the defeat. It was his 34th birthday. Considered one of the rugby “greats” from the greatest rugby nation of the world, he has played 126 tests.

The All Blacks must rebuild, and there are no two ways about it.

That morning he said, “It’s hard to put things into words.”

He was speaking on behalf of all devastated All Blacks’ fans.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist and was involved in playwriting, directing and acting during his younger days. He has never watched a full football game in 40 years. He is a rugby fanatic.

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