As you may have seen, I really enjoy watching Rugby, and outside of hockey, it is becoming my favorite sport. As such, I decided to make a trip out to London this weekend. I will be leaving on October 1st from Dulles to get to the city via Heathrow and will be coming back on October 5th. I’ll certainly be doing my best to be as much as a tourist as possible, but along with that I will, at minimum be going to the biggest sporting event in the world this Saturday.
That will definitely be England vs Australia at Twickenham in the Rugby World Cup. Along with Wales, these three teams form the “group of death” of this year’s tournament. Coming in to last week, they made up the three best teams in the world not named New Zealand.
Wales came in to the tournament among the weakest of the three because of their shocking injury crisis. Under Warren Gatland, the National Team is infamous for their tortuous summer training camps in places such as Poland, the French Alps and in the Middle East. Some will argue that with a group that has worn too many battle scars from victorious Lions tours and Six Nations Championships that the coaching staff should tone their regimen down just a tick. Unfortunately, that’s just not how “Warrenball” works.
With all the wear and tear, the injuries came hard and fast. George North was out for months due to post-concussion protocol. Samson Lee and the vast majority of the front row are dealing with niggling injuries that are struggling to keep them at 90% fitness, let alone 100%. Jonathan Davies tore his ACL. Liam Williams was recovering from foot surgery. And then, the warm-up game against Italy happened. Not only did Wales lose their starting scrum-half Rhys Webb for the tournament, they also lost their best player. Not since Neil Jenkins in the 1990s have Wales had a better goal kicker and all-around attacking threat as Leigh Halfpenny. All it took was one step to see his ACL and his World Cup dreams dashed. It was literally the Robert Griffin III torn ACL all over again, except this a nation watching it’s hopes and dreams under threat instead of a city’s.
But for one Saturday night, a helter-skelter rugby game between old foes and next door neighbors lead to Wales upsetting England. Yes, they would lose three more to injury, but the damage has been done from one nation towards another. Now, the host country need to win against another rival, the Wallabies, in order for them to stay involved in the tournament.
Thanks to the workings of Michael Cheika and a return to health for the best back row player in the world in David Pocock, Australia are a new team and if things break right, could the biggest challenge to the All Blacks for the World Cup. Not only will Pocock and Michael Hooper do whatever they can to tackle their hearts out and create as much turnovers as possible, but Isreal Folau is going to so much fun to watch. Literally, the 26-year old is like watching Michael Jordan being turned into a rugby player. At 6’4″ and 227 pounds, the man can do it all thanks to his previous experience in other professional sports like Australian Rules Football and Rugby League. Both sports teach to contort the body in such a way to win high balls and create the offload while being on the verge of tackling and for those that are able to master the complicated nature of International level Rugby Union let their skills shine that make them the most unique athletes on the pitch.
While Australia will be bringing their A-game, England have to as well. In front of 80,000+ every night and the royal family every night, Lancaster’s men are team full of almosts. Chris Robshaw has a world class workrate, but with Matt Williams’ decision making skills in clutch moments. Courtney Lawes is almost a world class lock forward. Johnny May is assured hands away from using his world class speed to be a world class try scorer. Mike Brown is a few inches taller, a few pounds heavier and a better passing game away from challenging Folau as the best fullback in the world. Manu Tuilagi should have been the best ball-carrying center in the world. Dylan Hartley should have been the best hooker in the world. Ben Youngs is few risks too many to be the best scrum-half in the world. George Ford is a few years and better goal-kicking skills away from being the best number 10 in the world. Dan Cole and Joe Marler are a bit more gamesmanship away from being the best scrummage tandem in the world. Underratedly, but more importantly, England’s coaching staff seam to be a better defensive structure away from being the best in the world.
Either way, when things work for England, like in December 2012 against the All-Blacks, it’s a thing of beauty. When it doesn’t work, like last Saturday’s or March 2013’s Six Nations title decider against Wales, it’s a complete disaster.
No matter what, this is going to be good theater and I wouldn’t have it any other way. To this day, watching an unblocked Tamba Hali flip over Troy Smith for the game sealing sack and fumble in front of 110,000+ in 2005 was the greatest sporting event I have ever seen live. Let’s hope this game tops it!
More updates from this trip will come, so be sure to stay tuned.