The Rugby World Cup trophy commemorates William Webb Ellis, the Rugby school lad who was supposed to have picked up the ball and run with it during a game on the Big Field in 1823.
The point of World Rugby iconising Webb Ellis is to establish the truth that rugby must be a running and passing game, not a kicking game like football.
As the wording on the commemorative stone at Rugby School reads: ‘William Webb Ellis with a fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time first took the ball in his arms and ran with it.’
England’s bully-boy no-rugby tactics against the South African Springboks in the second semi-final of RWC 2023 represents, then, a travesty of all the best qualities inherent in the running rugby game that have emerged through the play of millions of players in over 100 countries since Webb Ellis’ supposed ‘fine disregard’ for the kicking-only game.
Rugby lovers around the world need to rise up in protest against England’s brain-dead rejection of the essential running rugby ethic. We need to demand action in terms of significant law changes from World Rugby to thwart England’s shameful regression to a no-rugby game deployed against the Springboks.
As the nuns used to tell us at convent school: ‘What does it profit a man who gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his immortal soul.’
In rugby terms: ‘What does it profit a team to sell out the soul of rugby for a RWC semi-final win.’
Playing in the white shirt colours of Rugby School, England disgraced the Rugby School tradition, its emphasis on sportsmanship, grace under pressure, running the ball, the thrill of the fair collision, honest physical conflict, shrewd tactics, fair play, and all the many other qualities that make the rugby game such a wonderful experience to play and watch.
Rugby should be a form of chess with tackling and running. Instead, England inflicted on a world-wide audience of 8.5 million people watching the semi-final what Gregor Paul in The NZ Herald called ‘an anti-rugby version’ of the game that was nothing much more than ‘relentless brutality.’
An English journalist, Andy Bull, writing in The Guardian was forced to concede that England had ‘a gameplan that was so devolved it was not modern rugby at all. It largely involved kicking the ball as often as possible – they did this 41 times in this semi-final – chasing after it to win it back, working their socks off in defence.’
There is more. Jonathan Liew, writing in the Guardian, wrote this scathing indictment about the way some rugby writers (mostly English) somehow celebrated the England’s no-rugby game plan: ‘So what, exactly, is being celebrated here? Certainly not the rugby itself … England kicked away 93 per cent of their possession on Saturday night and spent a total of 73 seconds in the South Africa 22. They registered the slowest ruck speed of the tournament … It was the first time at this World Cup that a team played an entire match without registering a single line break.’
Who would want to play this sort of game on a permanent basis? Who would want to watch this England version of cage-wrestling rugby?
England kicked so many times in the match that it became a kickathon. The pace of play was slower than snail speed. After virtually every scrap of slow-motion play the match stopped as England players collapsed to the ground as if shot by machine gun fire. Medics and bottle-runners flooded the field lengthening the breaks in play.
Even when the excellent referee, Ben O’Keeffe, told the England water carriers to leave the field and not come back they continued to defy him. There was constant niggling to antagonise the Springboks. Scrums and lineouts took an eternity to be resolved.
To top off all this time-wasting provocation, Owen Farrell behaved like a bully-boy leading his gang on a rampage rather than the captain of England in a RWC semi-final.
He screamed out ‘hit ’em’ time after time when the Springboks had the ball. His face was contorted into an angry hyena roar as he confronted referee Ben O’Keeffe repeatedly through out the match. The great tradition of rugby that the referee is the final arbiter of fact was trashed by Farrell who refused to shut up when politely told to stop by O’Keeffe.
Farrell was disrespectful and daft. Manie Libbok, no great goal-kicker, was able to slot the Springboks’ opening penalty after O’Keeffe, rightly offended by an incensed Farrell yelling at him when told to stop, penalised England 10m closer to their posts making the kick much easier to convert. There are rugby gods, though, and they are just. The unravelling of England’s no-rugby plan in the last minutes of the match proves this.
Let us go to the action to see how this story unfolds.
58 minutes. England 15 – South Africa 6.
England win a lineout near the halfway. Farrell grubber kicks to the corner. The Springbok winger Kurt-Lee Arendse fumbles the greasy ball. Knock-on. England ball to a scrum on the Springbok’s 5-metre mark.
The England coaching box breaks out into laughter. This is the scrum, they seem to suggest, that will clinch England’s win. Any points now by England will probably seal the match for them. The Stan commentators begin to talk about England’s ‘master class in winning a RWC semi-final.’
The scrum is reset after an England prop puts his knee on the ground before the first shove.
The second scrum sees the Springbok Bomb Squad pack demolish the England eight. Penalty relief to the Springboks. Pressure is still on England to somehow hold on to its lead which remains slightly vulnerable.
68 minutes. England 15 – South Africa 13.
The Springboks have a lineout on England’s 5 metre mark thanks to a booming penalty punt by Pollard from the halfway mark.
Instead of using the rolling maul, the Springboks charge around the lineout to within metres of the try line.
The substitute lock, RG Snyman, a giant of a man, smashes through three England defenders, including a passive Farrell, to score a try which is converted. The try is set up from a searing run from the back of the maul by his fellow Bomb Squad substitute, Deon Fourie.
The Springbok try has cancelled out Farrell’s drop goal earlier in the half and one of his penalties, with a crucial 1 point margin left. The Springboks now only need a penalty to win the game.
This is South Africa’s 27th try of the tournament.
England went into this game – and ended it – with only 19 tries. The folly of relying on penalties and drop goals only to win big matches is about to be exposed.
78 minutes. England 15 – South Africa 16.
The Springboks are awarded a penalty near the 50m mark. Handre Pollard never looks like missing the kick.
Behind for the first time in the match, England show nothing like the magnificent last Ireland onslaught, 37 phases in all, against the All Blacks in their quarter-final. They never really breach the Springbok’s half. A casual dropped ball and it is all over for England.
And let us all thank the gods of rugby for this result.
The Springboks and their coaching staff, under the extremely difficult weather circumstances of the game and faced with England’s provocative bully boy no-rugby game, behaved in a smart and rugby-responsible way.
To begin with, the Springboks did not try to counter the no-rugby tactics of England with equivalent tactics. Instead, the team and the coaching staff employed different tactics and players, from early on in the game, in an attempt to pull back England’s early lead.
It was only after the match that the impish Springbok fullback Willie le Roux, antagonised the crest-fallen England players by imitating for his team-mates their (England’s) on-field hi-fives and hurrahs whenever their side made a good play.
When it was clear, for instance, to the coaching staff that their playmaker Libbok was struggling to impose the Springboks varied game plan on England, he was hooked. Handre Pollard, a vastly experienced player in wet weather and a renowned goal-kicker, came on. This was 31 minutes into the game. His first few plays were to try to move the ball through the backs.
As Paul Cully has pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Springboks won their way into the semi-finals by playing or trying to play ball-in-hand modern rugby. In their losing 8 – 13 match against Ireland, the Springboks kicked 16 times to Ireland’s 20.
But the coaches worked out by half-time that England’s no-rugby tactics and the windy and cold conditions required the Springboks to play a more restricted game plan based on dominance in the set pieces. This, in turn, meant that all 23 of the playing squad had to spend significant time on the field to make a significant impact.
With Pollard already on the field, the coaches early in the second half replaced the talismanic second-rower, Eben Etzebeth, with the try scorer RG Snyman.
Was there a thought about keeping Etzebeth, a work horse during the tournament, slightly fresher for the final? Probably not. Etzebeth had lacked his usual energy and power. He was replaced by a bigger and more powerful player.
To provide more energy in the backs, Cobus Reinach was replaced by the aggressive Faf de Klerk and Damian Willemse, who was finding the conditions a challenge to his dry-field skills, was replaced by the experienced Willie le Roux.
Then Vincent Koch, Ox Nche and Deon Fourie came on. By the 45th minute the Springboks coaches had taken their big gamble and unleashed their Bomb Squad to change, they hoped, what looked like an inevitable England victory.
And the gamble worked, but only with minutes remaining in the match. It was a close run thing and the early intervention was probably the key factor in the ultimate win.
The Springboks coaching staff provided a real time master class in crisis management. Sir Clive Woodward reckons this staff is the best technical coaching staff currently in the world rugby.
I’m inclined to agree with Sir Clive. They have tried to make the standard power game of the Springboks more expansive. They have been innovative with using their reserves, especially the way they have occasionally loaded the bench with up to 7 forwards and one back. Some of their set plays, too, especially in the forwards, have been imaginative.
They have in effect created two teams within their 23-man squad on match day: an expansive side to start the match and a power squad to finish it.
And just to finish, a note on the All Blacks superlative seven tries victory over a courageous Pumas team in the first semi-final.
Elements of the British media that praised England’s no-rugby effort diminished the All Blacks seven try victory by suggesting, for instance, that their ‘ruthless efficiency on both sides of the ball turned the RWC semi-final against Argentina … into little more than a training run.’
This put down does not take notice of the spirited start the Pumas made when attack after attack, with ball in hand and hard shouldered running, put pressure on the All Blacks’ defence. And it diminishes the excellence of the All Blacks attack that saw them score a record number of tries against a historically tough Pumas defence.
Angus Gardner, the Australian referee, was accused of turning the match in favour of the All Blacks when he ruled an advantage over, which in turn led to a try by the All Blacks flanker Shannon Frizell.
According to Andy Bull in The Guardian, this was the ‘one last moment when it looked as though Argentina might just cling on, when New Zealand were leading 15 -6 and conceded a knock-on in kicking distance, but it came and went as quickly as the advantage Gardner awarded for it.’
This is nonsense analysis.
To begin with, knock-ons result in scrums, not penalties and the All Blacks scrum monstered the Pumas eight throughout the match.
Second, Gardner, who had an excellent match, explained to the Pumas’ captain that his team had cleared play from two rucks successfully before they knocked the ball on. Under the laws of rugby, Gardner was required to call the advantage over: ‘Advantage ends when: The referee deems that the non-offending team has gained an advantage.’ This clearly was the case in the sequence under discussion.
Bull, along with a number of other British journalists, was also critical of the All Blacks coaching staff for playing out the last six minutes of play without allowing Scott Barrett to return from his yellow card sin bin: ‘Apparently, they decided that it would be better preparation for next week to play a man short for the last five minutes. So the Cup semi-final ended up being treated like a practice match.’
Again, this is a nonsense analysis.
The All Black coaches had cleared their bench of reserves before Barrett was sent to the sin bin. There was no player to replace him. There were six minutes of play to go and the All Blacks were leading 44 – 6. If Barrett went back on to the field there remained the risk of him getting another yellow card, slight perhaps, but a risk. Two yellow cards make up a red card. And a red card would mean that he would not play in the RWC final.
The fact is that the All Blacks were the most impressive of all the sides playing in the semi-finals. As the UK Telegraph writers, Daniel Schofield and Cameron Henderson, noted: ‘The All Blacks may have lost some of their aura in recent years, but their speed of thought and deed make them a frightful proposition heading into their fifth final.’
So the All Blacks and the Springboks go into the final of RWC 2023 with the splendid record of both teams having won the Webb Ellis trophy three times.
The Springboks have played in two fewer tournaments than the All Blacks, starting their participation in RWC 1995. They also defeated the All Blacks in the RWC 1995, final that President Nelson Mandela wearing a Springboks jersey came on to Ellis Park to shake hands with the teams. The two teams have played each other five times in RWC tournaments, with the All Blacks winning three and the Springboks two.
This match-up on Sunday morning (AEST) of the two best teams in RWC history, with one of them to became a four times Rugby World Champion, looks like being a rugby game for the ages.
Tying this essay together, then, in an effort to make sense of last weekend’s RWC 2023 semi-finals is this liturgy.
The rugby they play in Heaven was played by the All Blacks against the Pumas.
The rugby they play in Purgatory was played by the Springboks against England.
The rugby they play in Hell was played by England against the Springboks.