Positives from the pandemic are thin on the ground but maybe the scheduling effects of Covid-19 did England a tiny favour at the weekend. Under normal circumstances Argentina would have been at Twickenham, rather than beating New Zealand in Sydney, and the All Blacks would have sidestepped the chastening loss that will now allow Eddie Jones’s side to leap above them in the world rankings.
Second place behind South Africa is a position with which England are already wearily familiar but nudging New Zealand down into third is a bonus that will encourage Jones’s players to believe further sweetmeats might soon materialise. Beat Ireland well this Saturday, for example, and a winner-takes-all Autumn Nations Cup finale against France will be the probable outcome.
In some respects, though, Argentina’s beaming smiles and genuine emotion simply added to the air of November melancholy in London as Georgia endured a one-sided 40-0 smashing on Saturday. For all the talk of rugby’s global expansion, the top of world rugby is an interdependent family unit and not being allowed to see your distant relatives – even the unsmiling ones dressed all in black – is no fun at all.
How to gauge properly, say, where England stand when they are engaged in a cobbled-together tournament purely for monetary reasons and without the two crucial ingredients that cause Twickenham to glow brightest in the winter gloom: decent opposition and 82,000 satisfied patrons? It is not Georgia’s fault – nor the Rugby Football Union’s – but historians may just identify 2020 as the year that administrators finally began to appreciate that television income is not, in itself, professional sport’s best friend.
What counts for far more, ultimately, is the priceless human connection between players and supporters that can then be beamed down a billion cables for the delectation of everyone else. Jamie George scored the first hat-trick by a hooker in England’s history and yet felt disinclined to celebrate too much because there were no fans to raise his arms towards, let alone a throaty roar to be remembered until his dying day. Jack Willis, one of two England debutants along with Max Malins, could only chat to his ecstatic family via FaceTime afterwards, the hug of a lifetime denied to all concerned. Instead of traditional caps, the RFU may soon have to start presenting commemorative face masks.
Both Amazon Prime and the tournament organisers, accordingly, will be praying for something more life-enhancing on the field when Ireland head to Twickenham for the third time in 15 months. While the scoreboard currently reads 81-27 and 11 tries to four in England’s favour, there were flickers of an Irish renaissance visible in their 32-9 win over Wales last Friday, albeit against opponents low on confidence.
The key factor will be their ability to handle an England set piece and defence that are an increasing pain to play against. It is slightly ironic that Eddie Jones continues to ignore Exeter’s Sam Simmonds because England, in certain respects, now resemble a cross between the European champions and Saracens: remorseless up front, relentless close to their opponents’ line and resolute without the ball.
Between them, George and his fellow hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie have scored 11 tries for England since August 2019, more than their captain, Owen Farrell, has managed in his entire 89-Test career as a fly-half or centre. It is a stat that not only sums up how much rugby has changed but also where England under Jones are refocusing their efforts. It is no secret the head coach wants his forwards to squeeze all and sundry until their pips squeak and the introduction of the former Springbok forwards coach Matt Proudfoot appears to be bearing fruit.
Not only do England now have a widening raft of tight five options but, collectively, there seems a greater understanding of where and how they can best apply that pressure. Despite the rain that complicated life against Georgia, England’s driven mauls were expertly executed and it is unlikely Andrew Porter and the rest of the Irish scrum will have the same joy they obtained against the Welsh in Dublin.
That, at least, is the firm view of the England prop Ellis Genge. “I won’t reveal the secrets of baking a good cake but Matt’s been really good for us in terms of emotion and building a picture of where we want to be. When you have players as good as we have they sort of coach themselves; he is there to iron out the creases and get us prepared right psychologically and mentally. I said to him after the game: ‘Fair play mate, you could not have prepped us any better.’”
Georgia, for their part, now roll on to face Wales hoping their scrummaging prowess gains them rather more reward, while the referee Nigel Owens, who took charge of his 99th Test at Twickenham, is set to reach his ton when France play Italy on Saturday week. At this rate – in sharp contrast to the thrills in the southern hemisphere – it will rank among the highlights of an otherwise ho-hum European autumn.