Spectator sport

If England play like they did against Ireland, they’ll be formidable at the Rugby World Cup

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

9 February 2019

9:00 AM

At the same time as England’s rugby union players delivered a magnificent hearts-of-oak performance to humble a very good Irish side in Dublin, England’s cricketers were giving a very passable impression of what happens to a pile of balsa wood when stamped on by an elephant.

What happens next — especially looking ahead to the rugby and cricket World Cups later this year — is fascinating. The remaining Six Nations matches will show us whether Eddie Jones’s England, with the formidable help of the returning Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi, will go to Japan at the end of the year as a supreme force. I think they will. As my Kiwi friend Angus said: ‘If they play like that, England will beat the All Blacks.’

Afterwards Jones said he was still short of ten first-choice players. Well, there’s nothing like keeping the team on their toes, and all that, but I’m not sure I can think of ten better players. The performance in Dublin was pretty close to perfection.

And that’s the fascinating thing about sport. What on earth happened there? How to explain such an unexpectedly stunning display? Selection, preparation and execution sure, but there’s an inexplicable chemistry which occurs on the pitch between the players — indeed, in the spaces between the players — that makes the crucial difference. It’s why we watch sport: you never know if it’s going to happen. But it’s been years since I have seen it work out so perfectly (and unexpectedly). Maybe England 5, Germany 1 in 2001 was the last time.

Meanwhile England’s one-day cricketers — who are led, oh irony, by a gritty Irishman — will demonstrate in the five one-day games and three T20s that follow the doomed Test series in the Caribbean whether we truly have renounced any pretensions to be a Test power in favour of becoming the masters of the grand old game’s vaudeville younger brother.

It is now less than four months until England launch the World Cup at the Oval with a match against South Africa. The former England cricketer Vic Marks wrote in the Guardian last week that England ‘appear to be sleepwalking towards oblivion, a trait that English cricket is developing all too readily. This has been evident in the evolution of the Hundred’ (the 100-ball format due to be introduced next year).

That sort of talk is of course old school — a school at which I am proud to study — but, like it or not, it’s the short form of the game that pays the players’ wages. At least the shame on the players’ faces was writ large in the Caribbean: what a way to treat the thousands of fans who had travelled out there (admittedly, no great hardship) with that capitulation. We must refocus priorities, because if Test cricket dies, cricket dies. The rest is rounders.

There’s a notion gaining ground that anybody could do what Ole Gunner Solskjaer has done at Manchester United. That seems to be Paul Ince’s view: things were so poor at the club under José Mourinho that all you had to do was be different. He has his own axe to grind has the guv’nor, but that doesn’t seem to make any sense. You have to know what you’re doing. You can’t just hand out a few pizzas, give everyone the mornings off, say it’s all going to be fun from now on — and then go undefeated for ten games.

Jordi Cruyff, a former team mate, has credited Solskjaer with ‘unblocking minds’. Ince presumably thinks that’s a job anybody can do with a bottle of Mr Muscle and a stick. But I reckon there’s something subtler going on.

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