What an incredible afternoon of sport! As in unbelievable. As in results so unlikely that if you’d gone the bookies and put a tenner on the double you’d be walking away with a few thousand pounds.
Football: West Ham 3 Chelsea 1
Rugby: England 38 New Zealand 21
As the sadly deceased commentator, David Coleman, used to say: quite remarkable!
After a quick cycle round North Ealing, I settled on the sofa at 12.45, cup of tea in hand, ready for four hours of bracing live sport. Bracing as in a cold wind of harsh reality sweeping through my teams’ aspirations. Hopefully entertaining, if most likely excruciating. Had to be watched, no matter what the outcome.
First up the football. West Ham have had a great return to the Premier League. Top eight pretty much all season. But in the middle of a difficult run of fixtures. Lost away to Tottenham and then Man Utd – no surprises there – and now a home game against Chelsea. Of all the teams in the league, the one I generally hold out least hope against is Chelsea. Not beaten them since 2003. There was just a glimmer of hope, which was the crazy turmoil at Chelsea, after the Russian chairman, Roman Abramovich, inexplicably sacked manager Roberto di Matteo, who won him the Champions League in May, and even more inexplicably, appointed Rafa Benitez, much reviled by Chelsea fans when he was Liverpool manager. But I feared that West Ham would provide him with the respite he needed, the easy win to get his tenure going.
The first half bore out those fears. West Ham were timid, apprehensive. Chelsea, marshalled by the brilliant Spaniard, Juan Mata, pulled the Hammers all over the place and led 1-0 at half time. It should have been 3 or 4, to be honest. Fortunately striker Torres was misfiring and the West Ham goalkeeper, Jussi Jaaskelainen was in heroic form.
But at half time something happened. Actually, it was quite obvious. West Ham brought on their player of the season so far, Mohamed Diame. Why he was left out in the first place is a good question. Big Sam said he was a bit tired after the Spurs and United games. Well fair enough, he should know, but it was a risky tactic. Anyway spurred on by Diame, West Ham upped their game massively, used the wings and provided striker Carlton Cole with some decent balls rather than hopeful lunks. They pressed higher up the pitch and started to turn the game. After about twenty minutes the equaliser came: Cole climbing all over Chelsea centre back Ivanovich to head into the net. A bit lucky he wasn’t penalised, but I’m not complaining! Chelsea then came back into it and Mata hit the post. But West Ham hung on and towards the end racked up the pressure. Diame powered in the second goal after a great lay off from Cole, and then sub Maiga finished it off just before the 90 minutes were up.
3-1 against Chelsea! Unbelievable…
Which leads us on to the rugby. Had to watch it on slight delay as the games overlapped, but thanks to Sky Sports I could see all of both. (Just had to deny myself the joys of Twitter during the game to avoid prior knowledge of the score). I wanted to see the start of the game because one of the great sights in rugby is the All Blacks performing the Haka. Brilliant theatre, always increasing the sense of anticipation, even if, today, the sound was drowned out by the England fans singing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”.
The Autumn rugby internationals are a highlight of the rugby season, but always a reality check, as the Northern hemisphere sides generally suffer against Southern hemisphere teams. England, being the biggest money-spinners, get to play all three of the world’s top teams, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. It is usually a sobering experience. This season England, rebuilding, lost the first two, against the Aussies and Boks. Both games were close, but England’s handling was imprecise, most of their play a bit laboured. Against the top defences in the world, mind. Last weekend, the captain, Chris Robshaw was slaughtered by the press for choosing to take the three points from a penalty a couple of minutes from the end, rather than have the fly half, Owen Farrell, kick to touch for a lineout, which possibly could have led to a try. Possibly. No such thing had happened in the rest of the game. Kicking the three points (which Farrell did) would put England one point behind, with a chance to gain possession from the South Africa kick off, and then go through the phases, with the chance of another penalty, or a drop goal, or even a try. The only problem, in the end, was that Mauritz Botha dropped the ball, therefore ruining the plan.
I should declare an interest. Robshaw is a Quins man, a magnificent leader and player. But I do think he took the right decision. It was the execution that went wrong. At Quins it may well have worked.
Anyway, with England having lost to both South Africa and Australia, expectations were low heading into the New Zealand game. The All Blacks, after all, are the best team in the world. But, as with West Ham v Chelsea, there was just a glimmer of hope. In this case it was the feeling that England are actually quite good, and are developing into a top team. Maybe this was the game when it would click. Maybe…
Most of the chat beforehand was about the margin of defeat for England. I opted for ten points. Thinking they’d push New Zealand, but still be outclassed.
Well, how wrong I, and everyone else was!
England came out of the blocks competing fiercely, and took New Zealand by surprise with their intensity. The first half was all about penalties. Owen Farrell scored four out of four; the world No 1 Dan Carter missed both of his kicks. 12-0 England. We started to think, could it happen?
In the second half Farrell slotted over another penalty to make it 15-0. I was enjoying this! But then the backlash – or should that be blacklash? – occurred. New Zealand upped a few gears and tore through England’s defences for two quick tries. Carter converted both. 15-14. Oh well, it was good for the first forty five minutes…
We waited for the next NZ try. But then something else happened. England scored three! In rapid succession. They ripped New Zealand apart. All the tries by backs who’d taken a bit of stick after the first two matches, for lack of creativity and penetration. First, centre Brad Barritt, then winger Chris Ashton, then the other centre Manu Tuilagi. And it was the latter who was most responsible for the breakthrough. He was clearly the back New Zealand most feared and that led to mistakes in their defending for the first try. Ashton’s try came after a Tuilagi burst, and the third came from Tuilagi himself after he intercepted a New Zealand pass. Incredible stuff – suddenly England were 32-14 up!
England by now were playing with verve and great confidence. The forwards were awesome – they were winning all the battles. The All Blacks were seriously rattled. Then the substitutions began. I can understand why. Fresh legs, unbattered bodies, are needed. But it made me nervous. Owen Farrell off, debutant Freddie Burns on. Why take that risk? What if Burns fluffed it, great prospect though he is? (He didn’t: in fact he turned the screw on New Zealand, as the management would have anticipated). England got another penalty, converted by Burns. 35-14. That helped, though I couldn’t escape the mindset that even with a few minutes to go, New Zealand were perfectly capable of turning everything around. They did get one try back and threatened the England line again. As the threat of defeat finally receded, I wanted this to be the biggest defeat of the All Blacks ever. The commentator told us the previous margin was 13 points. Hold on to that 17! New Zealand attacked. There was a melee on England’s try line. Surely not a try? No, the ref blew the whistle….
38-21. The record winning margin for England against New Zealand. Truly amazing.
Flanker Tom Wood got man of the match. Right that a forward got it. It was the intensity of the forwards’ performance that set England up for victory. Then the backs did the business. The old adage: the fowards win you the game, the backs determine by how much. A bit unfair, given the defensive shift the backs put in too, and their role at the breakdown; but that is the nature of rugby union.
There were fifteen MoMs out there. Chris Robshaw was everywhere, leading from the front. The two second rows, Geoff Parling and young Joe Launchbury, were immense. Dan Cole at prop was ruthlessly efficient in the rucks. Owen Farrell kicked and passed brilliantly. Ben Youngs at scrum half was back to his pacy, probing best. Mike Brown, on the wing, gained the hard yards and was superb under the high ball. And Barritt and Tuilagi were solid and dangerous in the centre. Which takes us back to the point made earlier that the All Blacks clearly feared Tuilagi, and in the end, he was the game changer.
So maybe Tuilagi was the true man of the match, the catalyst. I’ve had my doubts about him, but today we saw how his raw power makes the difference.
Wow! I never thought I’d be writing about the England rugby team like this. Not today, anyway. But this really is a result to savour for a long time. And one to give us hope that this team could become great, maybe even win a World Cup. No, no let’s not get too carried away. It’s one fantastic result. That’s all. It could be the turning point, but let’s see if the level of performance can be sustained.
Roll on the Six Nations!