Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Tyrone Howe: Battle-hardened England use their army wisely

Almost six centuries ago in 1415, Henry V took his English armies onto the field of battle at Agincourt in Northern France.

There, against all the odds, he recorded one of the greatest and most unlikely victories in English history.

That was until last Saturday night. Shakespeare put the following words into the mouth of King Hal before the battle: "We are but warriors for the working-day, Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched, With rainy marching in the painful field, But, by the mass, our hearts are in the trim."

A rough translation: 'we may not look fancy, but we're up for it!' And they were, in an incredible and almost logic-defying performance and result.

The key issue with French rugby has always been about its mental state. When it's right, they can beat anyone and produce rugby from a different planet. When it's wrong, the wheels fall off.

Having tipped France from the start of the tournament, I am gutted, but I feared the worst when reading some of the pre-match comments.

French second row, Jerome Thion, said that the most important thing was to win, not to play beautiful rugby. Wrong.

That might apply to every other rugby-playing nation but not to French rugby, which is different. It is unique, it is enigmatic and to be at its best, it must be beautiful. Against that premise, the results look after themselves.

However, had Ben Kay uttered the same words, it would neatly have summed up everything about the English approach.

The England squad and management team deserve massive credit. I say squad, rather than team, because Brian Ashton's use of the bench has meant that everyone has had an opportunity to make an impact and it has fostered a collective spirit, where the whole is most definitely greater than the sum of all its parts.

My personal highlight was that extra bit of freshness in Joe Worsley's legs which allowed him to tap-tackle Ireland's Six Nations nemesis, Vincent Clerc, thereby giving him something to tell his grandchildren about in years to come. And then there's Jonny Wilkinson.

The darling of English rugby deserves every accolade.

Yes, he exudes confidence and class, yes, he is a prime organiser and motivator for the rest of the team, and yes, when the pressure is on, there is no-one better to shoulder that responsibility.

However, it is his honesty and self-effacing manner that makes him all the more admirable a human being. His tackle on Fabien Pelous, which forced the latter to leave the pitch, was a pivotal moment.

Not only did it disrupt the French scrum, which had had the upper hand up until then, but it also forced Bernard Laporte to introduce Sebastian Chabal much earlier into the game, thus restricting his impact factor. In fact, Wilkinson personifies all that is good about this England squad.

They have gained our respect and admiration by collectively hauling themselves out from a rugby hell, much bigger than the crisis from which Ireland failed to emerge.

Rather than their 2003 counterparts, who to a man were awarded an MBE for their achievement, this group of players is far more deserving of such an honour, simply for Magnificent Bloody Effort.

Unfortunately, it was a game too far for Argentina, as lapses in concentration and basic errors handed South Africa far too many opportunities to score points.

However, through this tournament, the Pumas achieved what they have most sought over the last few years - respect on the world rugby stage.

Their passion is infectious, right from the singing of their national anthem through to the final whistle and they rightly deserve due recognition, not to mention a sponsorship deal from Kleenex.

The Springboks looked ominous in the way that they scored efficiently off Argentina's mistakes, but they didn't actually create anything themselves.

On this point it is worth noting that sometimes, especially in bad weather conditions or in a game of intense pressure, it is actually easier not to have the ball.

With good communication and structure you can organise a strong defence, it is easier to spoil than to create, living off scraps and converting any possession and territory into points. South Africa employed these tactics and pounced as Argentina coughed up the ball. England, however, have made this an art form. Their results have been based on a destructive strategy with Wilkinson trying to convert incursions into enemy territory and, at this moment in time, England struggle to play any other way.

Therefore, in this World Cup Final, South Africa will have to go out to win the game - to create some rugby of their own.

That is the challenge for both sides - attack versus defence.

While South Africa, like France, are the better side and clear favourites to lift the title, the dream lives on for England and if they can win this Rugby World Cup, then it will eclipse the achievement of Jonno and co. four years ago. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more..."

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