With 2 games down and 2 to go the main course on the menu of rugby fun approached with an England XV facing the Barbarians in the traditional end of year fixture. Laura Wright sang a very beautiful version of Jerusalem as some very proud members of the forces pulled out first the England flags then the Barbarian flag to follow. The national anthem was sung, again beautifully by Ms Wright, but ooh, it’s still a dirge.
The game was a chance for some of the players on the fringe of the England set up to shine on the big stage. With a plane load of players already in New Zealand and a number of others involved in the Premiership Final the men in white shirts were a mix of fresh faced and experienced. As the game kicked off the Barbarians in their usual style eschewed the chance to kick at goal, kicking instead to touch on 2 occasions; 3 point rugby is not their thing. England were able to clear their lines however after the Ba Baa’s knocked on. Juan Martin Hernandez was put under considerable pressure by a great kick forward by England, his kick made little distance. England’s attack from the lineout came to nothing, play was returned to the penalty previously awarded for interfering in the lineout. Penalty kicks were clearly not going to be a feature as England kicked for touch. Joe Simpson broke the line and Dave Ewers picked the ball and using his strength and a very long arm touched down. Henry Slade added the 2 points. A cracking start by England!
Hernandez felt the full force of a tackle by Semesa Rokoduguni as the Ba Baa’s went on the attack, the ball was lost but the referee returned for a penalty. He seemed to be playing a very long advantage! The Barbarians scored the next try after great interchange play between Rene Ranger and Benson Stanley, real Ba Baa’s rugby! Stanley claimed the 5 points and Brock James added the extras. England were awarded a penalty in front of the posts and much to the disgust of the crowd chose to kick at goal, with Henry Slade off the pitch, Elliot Daley stepped up to score. Daley made a great break to put England deep into the Ba Baa’s half, he ran down Charlie Sharples wing, and it was to be Sharples who capitalised on the attack to score after a great kick through by Ollie Devoto. The conversion was from a difficult angle and Daley failed to convert. The Barbarians were quick to reply however as Brock James kicked to the wing; Hosea Gear caught the ball, passing inside to Juan Martin Hernandez who virtually strolled in to score. James added the extras. Barbarians were awarded a penalty from the kick off as the man was taken while in the air. Their attack from the lineout came to nothing as the ball was knocked on. Jamie Gibson was rather worryingly taken from the pitch on a stretcher buggy with 9 minutes of the half remaining. England were awarded a penalty from the scrum after an attack by the Ba Baa’s, Jimmy Cowan as cheeky as ever decided it was in his favour and tapped and ran in for a try…… nooooo Jimmy!
England came very close after a very exciting run of play, with Luke Wallace and Joe Simpson combining well, Wallace an England player of the future I’m sure and Simpson a man who should have had more appearances over the years for me. The play came back for a penalty and Slade back on the pitch kicked to add 3 points. My pet hate the Mexican Wave started with a few minutes of the half remaining, I suppose I can let the crowd off for this one game! They managed a very impressive run! A great half of rugby finished as Joe Simpson kicked the ball out with the scores on England 18 Barbarians 14.
Jamie Gibson playing at flanker thought he’d have a go at being hooker in the first scrum and was penalised at the start of the 2nd half. Another set of knock ons after the lineout saw another scrum this time the Ba Baa’s were awarded a free kick. Another knock on saw another scrum awarded, Mamuka Gorgodze picked up the ball and seemed to have scored. Play continued after Joe Simpson picked the ball up but eventually the referee stopped the play to go back and check. The TMO confirmed the try, Brock James added the extras. The Barbarians were awarded a penalty in front of the posts as the referee barely gave Ross Harrison any time to roll away. This time the choice was to kick, again to boo’s Brock James added the 3 points. Seemingly the mindset had moved to the win. There was some excitement in the crowd as England intercepted the ball seeing Jonathan Joseph break away, those with ref link will have known the ref was playing an advantage for offside. The Ba Baa’s knocked the ball on in the attack and England were awarded a penalty as they played the ball out of their half.
England playing Barbarian stylie surged forward in attack, Henry Slade appeared to score but again a decision for the TMO. Lots of chat from the ref to the TMO; English spoken with a French accent is so incredibly charming! Especially when the result is the awarding of a try! The conversion was from the touchline and Slade very nearly got the points, but the ball hit the posts. The Barbarians were again awarded a penalty after an England player failed to roll away and again chose the 3 points option. Francoise Trinh-Duc kicked straight through the middle. The next penalty opportunity was Englands’ as Joe Tekori failed to release the tackled player. Slade scored the 3 points taking the game to a 1 point gap, with the Ba Baa’s in the ascendancy. Hosea Gear showed his All Blacks credentials to run in a solo try evading the pursuing tacklers to touch down closer to the posts than his run down the wing might have suggested. Francoise Trinh-Duc an unusual French fly half who kicks well, converted the try to take the score to England 26 Barbarians 34. A 2nd England player, Will Collier exited on the stretcher buggy, worrying for his club.
England were awarded a penalty with 12 minutes to go and with 2 scores needed Henry Slade kicked successfully closing the gap to 5 points. Funnily enough that kick was cheered! Elliot Daly started a great attack for England as he took a kick from Trinh-Duc at pace, Luke Wallace made a clean break as the play progressed but the ball was knocked on as England approached the try line. The Barbarians broke out of their half, with Rene Ranger making another great run; the ball was subsequently knocked on in midfield. More charming French accented instructions occurred as the scrum had to be reset. With 4 minutes remaining England were still 5 points behind and the Barbarians were in possession of the ball; Hosea Gear again broke free to run in and score. He did look as if he might have done a ‘Sonny Bill Williams’ and gone over the dead ball line; but the replay showed he just made it. Trinh-Duc missed the conversion, but we were back to a 10 point gap. England were given a final attacking opportunity and kicked to touch, a further penalty saw another lineout, the ball was knocked on and the referee blew the whistle for the end of the game. A brilliant display of rugby saw Hosea Gear receive the man of the match plaudit! In his post match interview he was asked about his future, he’s heading to Japan for a season.
During the press conference the England coaches rugby league legend Joe Lydon and Head Coach Jon Callard acknowledged the greater experience of the men playing in the hoops and odd socks of the Barbarians, They were very positive about the display by a largely inexperienced England team, When quizzed about the Tight Head Prop slot now available in the touring party they wouldn’t be drawn. In spite of the result it was a good dat at the office for the England camp. Dean Ryan the Barbarians Head Coach explained how determined this group of men were to bring back the style of rugby associated with the name of the famous club. On asked the secret of the win his reply? ‘England very kindly kicked the ball to our back 3!’ By anyone’s standards, Juan Martin Hernandez, Rene Ranger and Hosea Gear are a dream act. The game was a total delight to watch, wonderful running rugby, with players backing themselves and taking chances. I for one will be looking forward to the rematch next season!