The World Cup opener was difficult to enjoy. Disappointing on many levels, from the dreadful slowness of the TMO to the dreadful inability of the England side to protect their ball in contact.
After a genuinely uplifting opening ceremony which audibly thrilled a supremely expectant and supportive crowd, it was difficult to imagine England playing without inspiration – without verve, even. They managed that with something to spare, resorting to (alleged) type in that they were unattractively un-free – not in an entirely Martin Johnson era kindofaway but in a fashion that makes their bottle ultimately… suspect. Play like this against the AB’s, Springboks or Australia and the North-South divide will be swiftly and emphatically re-stated.
Come the final whistle most of the watching world could be forgiven for not giving a toss about the allegedly critical bonus point issue. The quality of things had been so (ahem) ‘mixed’ that only Mike Brown resembled a top international close to his optimum. England – as hosts, favourites on the night and with magnificent positive energy driving them on – should have shown us all something different; something better. They were simply not comfortable enough in the moment to get things done.
Which of course begs the question ‘why?’
Why did the occasionally outstandingly perceptive and always articulate Jonny W – inevitably but rightly gathered in by the ITV RWC2015 machine – observe after halfway that the game plans for both sides were pretty much unobservable? Because they were. Fiji we forgive for their big-hearted amateurishness – England no. We’ll have fun debating whether the essence of this lack was about inadequate strategy or execution or if it was more about dearth of personality on the park. I slightly favour the latter.
The red scrum was unsteady and both Youngs and Ford at halfback floated things rather than zapped them. May and Watson (possibly through no fault of their own) were absent. The skipper only began to make inroads or show that noble bearing of his late, late on. Prior to this Fiji disrupted everything with embarrassing ease and provided the marquee moment of the game when their scrum half engaged warp-factor eighty from the halfway line but spilled the ball during touchdown. (It may prove in fact that the marquee moment followed, as the TMO/ref combo contrived to re-invent the wheel – or rather the rules – in correctly un-awarding an awarded try; in doing so providing the rugby universe with a cosmically fundamental challenge to the refereeing process.)
But back to the game, which bundled towards PR Disasterdom given the painful volume of interruptions and the frankly poor fare on the pitch.
England got a lead and therefore the cushion they needed but smothered themselves with confusion when not being knocked back by determined Islanders. There was little in the way of Bobby Moor(e)-ish calm from the men in the ‘66 shirts. On 70 minutes Lancaster, who doesn’t appear to have a raging gear, must have been outsourcing the necessary expletives to Farrell senior and Rowntree. On 80, he might be forgiven for heaving a huge sigh of relief before assaulting the nearest bottle of something punishingly alcohol-rich.
Like Keegan K, after a memorably dismal Show Pony of-a performance, the England Egg-chaser’s Gaffer may not have wanted to see his charges ‘til the next century’; somebody, surely, however needed to fume with a degree of violence towards the players post-game, despite the ‘achievement’ of a bonus-point win.
Was it really as bad as all that? Nearly. There was a momentary surge of the irresistible as forwards then forward-back Barritt rampaged a driving maul to the line (and a penalty try.) There was Brown. There was, in truth almost nothing else. Somewhere, I felt a Gatland bristle… and smile.