FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE HONEY MONSTER

Two sporting events enthralled the nation this weekend; one sublime —

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the other ridiculous.

Bringing your own Hillary Shield is no guarantee of retaining it — ah well, we’ve still got the William Webb Ellis one

At Twickenham on Saturday afternoon, the mightiest Rugby Union team in the world were humbled. The World Champions, unbeaten in 20 outings were thrashed by a side, which for two weeks couldn’t win a prize in a tombola that no one else had entered.

The unbeatable All Blacks — perhaps the greatest team ever — were beaten.

There was absolutely no reason to expect that England’s performance in their fourth QBE Autumn International was going to be any less dreadful than their previous two matches.

The Haka — how about a bit of Morris dancing to illustrate English cultural diversity?

But for some reason — maybe a genuine belief that they couldn’t possibly be so insipid for a third consecutive Saturday — there was an air of anticipation. The singing of ‘Swing Low’ during the performance of that unilateral piece of gamesmanship called the Haka, showed that the crowd was really up for this one.

If only England could be too.

When Dan Carter missed a couple of penalties he would normally have put over with his eyes closed, and Owen Farrell kicked his, there was a palpable belief that this could just be England’s day.

And then at half time, after Farrell had dropped a goal and kicked a third, and with the New Zealand half of the scoreboard still unmoved, there was belief.

Not only that, but things were actually going rather well for the hosts. For the first time since 2003 they ran incisive lines, held defenders rather than killed their own space with a drift attack and — above all — forced errors from an opposition that suddenly looked rather ordinary.

It helped no end that referee Mr George Clancy denied Ritchie McCaw the freedom of the park afforded him by most referees, to pirate ball from illegal positions, and to set up camp on the wrong side of the breakdown.

And, Mr Clancy was correspondingly generous to Tom Youngs whose lineout throws found his man with the curvature and reliability of a boomerang.

What if England could get the first score in the second half? That would really put the cat among the pigeons.

We didn’t have long to wait; two minutes after the interval Farrell added his fourth penalty and then it all went horribly wrong.

In a three-minute period, New Zealand all but wiped out England’s hard fought lead with two converted tries, the first from Julian Savea and the second from Kieran Read.

This is where England folds then, isn’t it? This is where normal service, that has brought the Blacks 27 wins from 35 meetings with England, resumes.

But wait.

England’s response showed mettle, tenacity and levels of skill only the management team believed them to possess. In their own eight-minute purple patch they scored three tries; the first from Brad Barritt, the second made by Manu Tuilagi and finished by Chris Ashton, and the third, a pass from Read to Carter picked off by Tuilagi who ran in from halfway.

The collective All Black heart, like its aura, was broken as England recorded their seventh ever victory over New Zealand since they first met at Crystal Palace in 1905.

And at 38-21, this was, by a considerable way, their greatest ever margin of victory.

In sport, it is said that you are only as good as your last game. There were flaws: Ben Youngs kicked too long, Ashton dropped a walk-in pass, and soft-shouldered tackling allowed the Kiwis to prevent the door slamming in their faces at 15-0.

But the next time England take the field — against Scotland on February 2nd — they will have to be very, very good indeed to improve on this. For this wasn’t only the best performance since 2003 — it was the best performance for a generation.

And so to the ridiculous.

Someone who will not be concerned if he is only as good as his last performance is the boxer Freddie Flintoff.

I want to move like Flintoff… err… not really

For it is unlikely — if he has any sense, that is — that the former England and Lancashire swashbuckling ‘Boys’ Own’ hero will ever step into a ring again.

Better to be looked over than over looked? Nah

In an era when it is increasingly difficult to separate sport from the razzmatazz of show business, this one was simple enough to spot. The only common ground that events at Twickenham shared with this was Ashton’s swallow dive — an act of supreme self-promotion designed to splash his image across the front page of every paper in the land.

 

I’d never been to a boxing match before and I certainly wouldn’t rush back to one.

As an evening’s entertainment it rivals watching Question Time for excitement; although it’s easy to see why such a large number of the football fraternity follow it: nothing much happens, and when it does you generally miss it.

This can be for a variety of reasons; but in my case, seated in the third row of the MEN Arena on Friday night, it was because a guy with a greasy grey ponytail, wearing a leather cowboy hat and holding a TV camera stood behind the ropes restricting my vision.

There were sideshows of course, as John Bishop and some of Freddie’s other celebrity cronies showboated with plastic smiles for punters’ cameras.

Perhaps the best sideshow was the Nuts girls, whose duties included wrapping themselves around Bishop and parading the number boards at the end of each round. It took a long time for them to work out what number comes after seven in the penultimate bout.

But let’s not take anything away from Flintoff, although how he can become a professional boxer when his body’s too shot to play cricket is beyond me.

Flintoff’s training regime, one of uncharacteristic abstinence, led to a weight loss of almost three and a half stones over a three-month period, and at least he looked the part.

Perhaps his greatest achievement in the ring, was to be naked from the waist up and for the crowd to chant ‘you fat b**tard’ to someone other than himself.

As to the target of this abuse, American Richard Dawson appeared to have been carefully selected for his inability to provide a serious threat as well as his ability to turn the crowd against him.

Dawson, an overweight, black boxer from Okmulgee, Oklahoma, had one win as a professional behind him before Friday. He was never going to add to his tally. Rumoured to have underworld connections, he resembled a bar room brawler who’s pretzels had been pinched, and barely landed a serious punch.

So where does this leave Flintoff?

Does this complete him as a professional athlete, or will be seek another equally improbable professional sporting challenge to keep him on the silver screen?

For now the Flintoff camp is keeping schtum about the future.

But how about this, camp Flintoff?

How about having a go at playing professional Rugby? If the body can take the pounding of professional pugilism then it should be homed for the physicality of Rugby Union.

And wouldn’t it be a great sight to see Freddie fronting up to the Haka?

I’d buy a ringside seat for that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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