Sunday 17 November 2019

England defence strangles Aussies to pave way for serious thrashing

Owen Farrell signs autographs following his side's 40-16 victory over Australia. Photo: David Davies
Owen Farrell signs autographs following his side's 40-16 victory over Australia. Photo: David Davies

Jonathan Liew

Owen Farrell is screaming. It's a scream you can hear a hundred yards away, from the very top of the stands at the cavernous Oita Stadium, over the din of 40,000 people. It's a scream of pride, and triumph, and longing, and knowing. Knowing that even though there are still 20 minutes to play in the World Cup quarter-final, England have got this one in the bag.

It came after a passage of play that encapsulated this game, and in many ways encapsulated this side. Trailing 27-16 and awarded a penalty deep in English territory, Australia had for the second time in the match turned down three points in favour of the scrum. The ball came out, went through the phases, out to the right, back infield. Somehow - and yes, I'm aware this isn't just unlikely but probably physically impossible - it felt like every single tackle was being made by Tom Curry.

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Finally, as Isi Naisarani went to ground, Kyle Sinckler caught just the merest glimpse of the ball in the ruck, reached in, and grabbed it like a thieving magpie. Henry Slade kicked cathartically clear. And finally, under the pressure of a tremendous chase, Will Genia fumbled the ball for a knock-on. That was the point at which Farrell let out a scream that might well have blown a hole in the hefty stadium roof.

It feels counter-intuitive on a day when England rattled up 40 points and equalled their heaviest ever win over Australia, but England's first men's World Cup semi-final in 12 years was an achievement built not on shimmering attacking flair but indomitable defence.

The statistics spoke for themselves: Australia had 64 per cent of the possession, 62 per cent of the territory, carried for twice as many metres, won more than twice as many rucks. England withstood almost everything flung at them, waited for the errors, and then administered the sort of thrashing that nobody in a gold shirt will forget.

The statistics weren't the only thing speaking for themselves. One of the benefits of the increasingly intimate television coverage of the sport over recent years has been the opportunity to hear from the players themselves at close quarters. Farrell, the captain, has a motto: "When things get tough, keep talking". And over 80 minutes in the Oita crucible, in what for many of these players will have been the biggest game of their lives, they never stopped.

So as a scrum collapsed in the first half, we heard Sinckler shouting "ROMAIN!", making sure assistant referee Romain Poite 50 yards away on the other side of the field was keeping an eye on Australian infringements. We heard Maro Itoje roaring at the English supporters in the crowd to get them going. We heard Farrell pestering referee Jerome Garces about a dubious tackle that had taken place about a minute and a half earlier.

But above all, they talked to each other. Has there ever been a noisier international side than this lot? They chatted to each other at the scrum and during breaks in play. They chatted to each other in the tunnel before the game and on the field afterwards. At one point, after Garces had awarded Australia a penalty at the breakdown, Billy Vunipola approached him to make representations, only to be talked out of it by Courtney Lawes.

No rugby team can function without communication, of course. But under the aegis of Farrell and Eddie Jones, you get the sense that talking is not so much necessity as ideology, one of the central planks of their strategy: a way of putting each other at ease, a gauge of each other's temperature, a means of imposing themselves.

"Rugby is a game of communication," Jones told a group of young Japanese rugby players during a school visit last year. "I want to see you talking to each other and communicating with your team-mates." He will often stop training sessions if he feels players have gone quiet.

Of course, that doesn't happen a lot these days. In the loquacious Farrell, Jones has found his perfect mouthpiece. Not that Farrell does Jones' talking for him: rather, Jones likes to see his players working solutions out for themselves on the pitch, sharing insights, talking strategy. Farrell remembers Stuart Lancaster telling him before making his England debut that he wanted him to be as loud in the England dressing room as he was at Saracens. Ironically, his team-mates describe him as fairly monosyllabic off the field. But on it, he tries to lead by word as well as deed.

It helps, of course, that these players have been together for a while: been on under-18 tours and training camps together, shared weeks on end in hotel rooms and coffee shops, learned what makes each other tick. And though all this may strike you as a relatively minor point, it says a lot about this England side that even under the highest of pressure, at a time when the instinct is to retreat within yourself, they keep communicating. It's how you keep your collective composure when your lead has been cut to 17-16. It's how you marshal a defence that is being pummelled and probed from every angle.

There was another scream from Farrell as the gong went for full-time. Then, after commiserating with the beaten Australians, he gathered his team in a huddle for one more chat. Arms around each other, breathless but satisfied, they listened in. "It was a great performance," Farrell told them. "Forty points. It's coming again next week, and it's got to be even better. There's still loads for us to work on."

And as the huddle dissolved, it felt like a fitting motif for this England side: a team that is slowly, relentlessly, irresistibly beginning to turn up the volume.

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