England hate losing so much they just keep on winning

Owen Farrell says Eddie Jones’ side have a resilience that few other teams possess

England’s Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes maul during their Six Nations clash with Wales. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

England’s Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes maul during their Six Nations clash with Wales. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

There is no more tantalising – or irrelevant – phrase in the sporting lexicon than “if only”. Modern Test rugby is almost entirely about outcome, particularly when England and Wales share the same rugby field. Post-match regrets – and goodness, Wales will have a few – must be buried six feet deep or privately tucked away for extra -motivation further down the track.

It might be to England’s advantage, even so, to reflect momentarily on how they might be feeling had, respectively, the Kiwi television match official Glenn Newman and the home side’s replacement flanker Sam Underhill not bailed them out at the weekend.

Even one converted Welsh try would have altered the complexion of the match and, potentially, the entire championship. While England sit joint-top of the table before the trip to Scotland on 24 February, this -absorbing contest at Twickenham on Saturday was as taut as they come.

Not since the championship was expanded to six teams, for a start, have England registered fewer points at home and still won the game. Rarely, too, have they bene-fited from a more high-profile TMO howler; Gareth Anscombe and his understandably unhappy head coach, Warren Gatland – “It was a terrible decision” – may also be New Zealanders but Newman did his compatriots no favours by crucially ruling Anscombe had not grounded the ball in the 23rd minute.

Nine times out of 10 Scott Williams would also have fancied diving beyond Underhill to score in the final quarter. On such tiny margins do successful title challenges rest.

For all of Wales’s never-say-die commitment on a cold damp day, though, it has long since ceased to be coincidental that Eddie Jones’s side keep edging these tight games. Very often at the highest level it is the unsexy bits of play – the aerial contest, kick chase, restarts, defensive line speed – that settle big contests and Jones’s England are increasingly sound in all those areas. Like all top sides they also hate losing so intensely that, after a while, it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.

No two players exemplify it more than Owen Farrell and Mike Brown. Brown was named man of the match before being angrily defended on live radio by Jones – “He’s been the most criticised player in English rugby,” the head coach said – against those who would allocate the fullback’s jersey elsewhere.

Farrell’s input was as vital as Jonny May’s two early tries, underlining why he ranks increasingly high among the most influential players of his generation.

“That’s why he is one of the world’s best players,” said his recalled club-mate Richard Wigglesworth. “It’s not just the effect he has on the game as an individual but the effect he has on the people around him.”

A clearly satisfied Farrell still had a tell-tale gleam in his eye 90 minutes after the final whistle; natural-born warriors love nothing more than a “proper” Test of manhood and spirit.

“There’s a resilience to us, I think,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it an invincibility but, when you’ve been in an arm wrestle for that long and come out on the right side, it shows you’re heading in the right direction. I think that’s what big teams do. They come out on top in the end. There’s no massive secret to what we’re doing. It’s about us working hard and preparing properly for the next Test.”

In almost the same breath, though, the 26-year-old accepted that England might have gone down had Underhill not scooped the slithering Williams out of play just inches short of the line: “That tackle by Sam Underhill was unbelievable, one of the best you’ll see. It shows our attitude when it comes to it. Normally just try to get the player into touch. Sam’s got in close, got his shoulder on him, flipped him over and not even given him the chance to place the ball. He’s a tackling machine. You don’t expect anything less.”

The modest Underhill made it all sound less calculating – “I just remember sheer panic . . . pegging it to the corner because I’d slipped over and they had an overlap and being so glad I made it in time” – but the former Osprey’s strength and awareness of angles underlined his rare defensive aptitude. With Joe Launchbury and Dan Cole as unselfishly influential as ever, Jones’s preference for electing durable characters with an unquenchable appetite for hard graft continues to yield consistent results. – Guardian

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