The Mole was in Bordeaux four years ago when the French neutrals got behind a Georgian team threatening to upset Ireland in the group stages. All you could hear in the velodrome that night was “Georgie! Georgie! Georgie!”
If the recent clash between England and Georgia had been played in front of a French crowd, the support for the hard-hitting Caucasus mountain men would have been deafening. Georgia dominated English territory for forty minutes, and had outhalf Kvirikashvili brought his kicking boots they would have gone into the pavilion ahead at halftime. As it was, England went in 17-10 up having spent more than three-quarters of the opening period blockaded in their own half.
It was a curious game. Initially, England weren’t able to slug their way out of trouble, even though old boy Simon Shaw had an absolute cracker of a game. The pack they had out wasn’t their biggest – it was shorn of the injured Ted Sheridan, corpulent Steve Thompson and heavyset Nick Easter – but they certainly weren’t light on the scales. However, once again they conceded penalty after penalty at the breakdown, experienced Saffa ref Jonathan Kaplan repeatedly pinging them for not rolling away from the tackled player, playing the ball on the ground, handling in rucks and side entry. After half an hour a stat flashed up on the screen to announce that they had conceded nine penalties!
Unfortunately for Georgia, Kvirikashvili couldn’t kick snow off a rope. He missed five from six penalty attempts, and the shape of his kicks gave further credence to Gilbert-denied claims that the World Cup ball – the Virtuo, I believe it’s called – has a smaller sweet spot that previous Gilbert models. Georgia’s blunt force was thus blunter than usual, and England were able to counterpunch and put the points on the board that gave them a perhaps undeserved lead at the halftime whistle.
Mamuka Gorgodze was immense for the Georgians, his relatively subdued game against Scotland forgotten. However, it was clear that the recent arm-wrestle against the Sweaties had taken some puff out of the rest of their forwards, and England’s sharp outside backs were well-able to make them pay as the game drew on.
Wings Delon Armitage and Chris Ashton and outside centre Manu Tuilagi all got on the score-sheet with tries; even the relatively tight-fisted Shontayne Hape contributed a brace. It’s worth noting that all the English try-scorers were backs. England have real pace in Ashton and Foden, and Manu Tuilagi has both gas and strength. There are legitimate questions over who is the better out-half to drive the team’s tactics, especially once Wilkinson’s goal-kicking isn’t at its metronomic best. Flood probably gets the backline moving better, but inspires little confidence, whereas le Jonny is an icon in the best sense of the word.
Lewis Moody made his return to international rugby, captaining the team for an hour on the openside flank. He’s a vitally important figure for England, because their second option at openside is Brand Haskell – a good, hardworking player [if hard to warm to], but only an openside in the way that Joe Worsley was … i.e. not really an openside at all.
The Scottish match could be a tough job of work if England don’t get their discipline sorted out. Chris Paterson normally has the kicking boot to punish repeated malfeasances, and the Sweaties have their choice of out-and-out opensides in John Barclay and Ross Rennie who will put bigger, slower English forwards under penalty pressure at the breakdown. If the Scottish pack can stand up to the English in the scrum – and they stood up bloody well to a fresher Georgian pack than the English faced – they’ll have the set pieces to compete on an even footing. That game could be a real cracker.