The great and the good had been queuing up all week to predict an England win at Twickenham on Saturday night, among them three captains from World Cups long gone, writes Peter Jackson.
Sean Fitzpatrick, Lawrence Dallaglio and Keith Wood all backed the hosts to beat the noisy little neighbour. The New Zealander went for England by eight, the Englishman by six to seven, Munster’s Uncle Fester by fewer after “an unbelievably close” match.
Maybe all three had been so immersed in a bottoms up, scrummaging habitat that they were oblivious to the passing of Yogi Berra, the revered Yankees catcher straight out of the same ball park as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson.
Yogi, almost as famous for his mangled English as for his baseball, could have put the wise guys of rugby right on the folly of trying to play Nostradamus. His advice could be read in one of the better obituaries following his death last Tuesday, at the age of 90: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Berra, of course, inspired the creation of his celluloid near-namesake Yogi Bear, the cartoon character whose catch-phrase became Clive Woodward’s well-worn mantra throughout his seven years running England: “You gotta be smarter than the average bear.”
Had he been Yogi-smart, Woodward would have put his shirt on Wales. Instead, he took the patriotic punt and went for England by three. Japan’s man-of-the-moment Eddie Jones tipped them by five and the All Black centurion prop Tony Woodcock by an undisclosed amount. Which only goes to show, what do they know about it, anyway?
It’s enough to give a soothsayer a bad name but their prognoses were only the tip of the iceberg, which Wales saw coming in negotiating their Titanic way out of some stormy waters at Twickenham.
Matt Dawson, never short of an opinion, and one of his scrum-half contemporaries, Justin Marshall, assumed the Red Rose would prevail because hadn’t they both tipped England to be in the final? Instead they are in grave danger of being counted out this coming Saturday.
Lose again to Australia, and the hosts will await their own burial at a funereal Twickenham. Yogi, naturally enough, had his own take on that subject, too. “Always go to other people’s funerals,” he once advised. “Otherwise they won’t come to yours…” Priceless.
They’ve been carting them off on stretcher buggies every weekend for a while now and the weekend Ireland brought to a close yesterday after turning Wembley 40 shades of green proved, regrettably, no exception.
So many Welsh backs are either awaiting operations or recovering from them that their management will surely have to recall the one player they have studiously refused to pick all along — James Hook. They hardly have anyone else left standing, with the bruising Fijians up next in Cardiff on Thursday.
Welsh resources were stretched so thin, that they stage-managed the Twickenham miracle despite a stand-off at full-back (Rhys Priestland), a scrum-half on one wing (Lloyd Williams), an out-of-touch sub on the other (Alex Cuthbert) and a wing at outside centre (George North). They will discover soon enough whether Twickenham will prove the most pyrrhic of victories.
Scott Williams has told team-mates he does not expect to play any further part in the tournament. Dragons wing Hallam Amos is in a similar predicament and concussion protocols threaten to prevent Halfpenny’s deputy, Liam Williams, making an immediate return.
The ever-rising ferocity factor ensures that the casualty list lengthens with every game. The cruellest blow of all, and that’s saying something, fell yesterday on one of truly gallant men of the global game, Jean de Villiers.
It was a measure of the man that a broken jaw failed to prevent him staying at his post until the end of the Samoan match because his centre partner, Jesse Kriel, had been put out of action. Nor did it prevent De Villiers discharging his interview duties, unpleasant though they must have been despite the satisfaction of having led his team back off the ropes with a maximum points win.
Confirmation of the damage yesterday brought an immediate curtain down on De Villiers’ international career, at the age of 34. He will not grace the Test arena again and no more heroic figure will be seen between now and the final.
Too many more have already been smashed into submission in recent weeks, amongs them Tommy O’Donnell (Ireland), Halfpenny, Rhys Webb, Corey Allen (all Wales), Luca Morisi (Italy), Yoann Huget (France), Waisea Nayacalevu (Fiji) and Stuart McInally (Scotland).
Another Scot, Glasgow’s Pro12-winning fly-half Finn Russell, can only hope he avoids joining the crocks after being carried off at Elland Road yesterday, but it will be something of a miracle if he recovers in time for Saturday’s pool decider against South Africa.
Ireland’s three-quarter line for their first World Cup match – Wales at Wellington in 1987 – contained three six-footers, Trevor Ringland, Brendan Mullin, Michael Kiernan, and a mighty good little ‘un in Keith Crossan.
Average height: 5ft 10. Average weight: 13st.
Compare their vital statistics to those of the Goliaths of their joint Anglo-Welsh successors at Twickenham on Saturday night – George North, Jamie Roberts, Sam Burgess, Alex Cuthbert.
Average height: 6ft 5in. Average weight: 17st 3lbs.
In other words, seven inches taller per player and more than four stone heavier. Whatever happened to rugby’s time-honoured boast about being a game for all shapes and sizes – fat and thin, short and tall?
The concept began being pummelled once the Unions first took sponsors’ money, then demanded extra from their amateur players so they could keep upping the commercial ante. The advent of professionalism accelerated the pulverising process and turned it into a game for monsters.
No wonder bones are being broken all over the place.
John Bentley, the sharp-witted former Lions, England and Yorkshire wing, responding on BBC Radio Wales to a caller who made it clear she was somewhat less than enamoured of the English. “Have you ever been to Yorkshire?” Bentley asked. “You really ought to come to Yorkshire. I tell you what, we don’t like the English either…”
The national team may or may not be there much longer but England 2015 is already on its way to being the best World Cup of all — towering stadia, billiard-table surfaces, heroic matches and world record crowds every weekend, numbers made all the more wondrous by fan readiness to pay through the nose.
While Ireland-Romania generated some £10m (€13m), they stumped up twice as much to be ringside for England-Wales at Twickenham — £19,994,427 and 38 pence less than Billy Williams paid for the old cabbage patch in 1907.
Ayumu Goromaru (Japan); Juan Imhoff (Argentina), Mark Bennett (Scotland), Johan Deysel (Namibia), DTH van der Merwe (Canada); Dan Biggar (Wales), Aaron Smith (New Zealand); Marcos Ayerza (Argentina), Agustin Creevy (Argentina), Nicolas Mas (France); Iain Henderson (Ireland), Alun-Wyn Jones (Wales); Michael Leitch (Japan), Sam Warburton (Wales), Amanaki Mafi (Japan).
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