You win a World Cup quarter-final by sticking 40 points on a team and people start talking – of what might be, of where all this might end. People look forward and people start to dream.
Which is why the most important stuff that was said in the aftermath of England’s 40-16 win over Australia came from captain Owen Farrell, as he held his team in a huddle out on the Oita pitch long after the end of it all.
“It’s low-key, this. It’s 40 points – 40 points! Don’t let it take anything out of you, this game. Because it was a brilliant performance, and it’s coming again next week. And it’s going to be even better.”
Farrell has always been preternaturally mature, red-blooded when the tackles come flying in but cold and unencumbered by fear and doubt in those little silent moments when others wobble and crack.
- England still not at their best – coach Jones
- I’ve done my mum proud after long, long journey – Sinckler
- Ruthless All Blacks thrash Ireland to set up England semi-final
And so he held on to what plenty of other Englishmen were letting go and letting fly. A big step forward but one that must be followed by others. Keep something back, because a quarter-final on its own is nothing to define a career.
The thousands of white-shirted England fans streaming back towards the cramped bars and ramen-shops of Oita and Beppu were skipping into next week all the same. A 24-point margin of victory is England’s biggest in a World Cup knockout game. Never before have Australia lost so heavily at this stage or beyond. Only once before have they lost to England by so great a margin.
Forty points feels like domination. It sounds one-sided. So perhaps the most impressive aspect of England’s victory was that they pulled it off as much by keeping the Wallabies at bay as by ripping them apart.
England had only a third of the possession and about the same of territory. Yet only for a few brief moments at the start of the second half, when Marika Koroibete skinned Elliot Daly on the outside like a big brother breezing past his kid cousin, did they ever look in any sort of trouble.
World champions New Zealand have made a habit of winning without too much of the ball. It is about striking when you have it rather than holding on when it’s slow and sideways.
England absorbed all Australia could throw at them, which was a significant amount in the early minutes of each half. In two separate spells they felled gold-shirted runners with the sort of relentless enjoyment that makes ornery defence coaches dab away a happy tear.
The stats by the end were remarkable in any game, let alone one won by 26 points. Twenty tackles from Sam Underhill, 18 from Mako Vunipola. 17 by Jamie George, and Farrell.
No England player in World Cup history had ever made more than 16 in a single game. Tom Curry made 16 and only just sneaked into the top five in this match.
Farrell was right. It was a brilliant performance, way more comprehensive than England’s win over the same opponents at the same stage in Marseille 12 years ago, less nervous than the quarter-final win over Wales on the march to the glory four years further back.
The grinds past France in the semi-finals of 2003 and 2007 were glorious feats of cussedness and game control. This was quicker and nastier and considerably more relaxing in its final quarter.
It was also not flawless. They gave away six penalties in the first half, which allowed Christian Lealiifano to keep his team in touch when their adventurous, frenetic approach kept presenting England with the most generous of offerings.
This was a team that England had beaten six times on the bounce. In each of the past three years they have also put at least 18 second-half points on Michael Cheika’s men.
For all their ambition, this was a Wallabies team who lacked the ability to play the old-fashioned cavalier Aussie way that Cheika demanded.
Sometimes a straightforward kick-exit is a good idea. Sometimes tucking the ball under your arm and waiting a little longer is better than flinging it about with wide-eyed hope, particularly when your first-choice scrum-half is slowing too much possession down by taking two steps before each pass.
If you were able to choose a route to a World Cup semi-final you would happily take one that took in Tonga, USA, a 14-man Argentina and a team you have repeatedly cantered past.
But there was so much that was right that the All Blacks roadblock ahead next Saturday suddenly looks as enticing as it does intimidating.
Curry and Underhill, aged 21 and 23 respectively, have just 30 caps between then. David Pocock and Michael Hooper, 31 and 27, have a combined total of 182. It was the kamikaze kids who won that battle, just as Farrell’s display – eight from eight off the tee, a pass of sweet timing to send Kyle Sinckler crashing away in Manu Tuilagi fashion for the score that stopped the comeback dead in its tracks – justified Eddie Jones’ decision to drop George Ford to the bench and shift his skipper inside.
The only mistake Curry made all day was attempting to shake the hand of the Japanese woman presenting him with his man-of-the-match champagne. If he keeps this level up there will be plenty of others happy to bow down to him.
Farrell has now scored 154 points against Australia, more than other northern hemisphere player. The previous record was held by Jonny Wilkinson, and we all remember how that ended.
This is an English tight five that can do all the great things that old English tight fives could do, and carry and step and power as others would never have imagined. There is speed and menace on the wings in Jonny May and Anthony Watson and a depth on the bench that promises more still.
Farrell grew up in rugby and matured in its heart. He understands, as does anyone who watched the world champions’ demolition of Ireland, what could yet go wrong. He knows, more importantly, what must come next.
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