TWICKENHAM, U.K — It was billed as a warm up game for England ahead of bigger, better and scarier things awaiting in South Africa. But the Barbarians had other ideas. England have now lost four on the bounce, the Barbarians leave Twickenham having put on a remarkable show of genius, inventiveness and thrilling rugby to win 63-45.
Chris Ashton, on his return to Twickenham having grown disenchanted with life in England, scored a hat-trick.
“I just wanted to say hello, to make sure Eddie hasn’t forgotten me,” Ashton said at full-time. The rest of his Toulon teammates in the backline caused havoc in the England defence with both Josua Tuisova and Semi Radradra outstanding.
Finn Russell pulled the strings at fly-half, Victor Vito and Justin Tipuric did their best to muster some breakdown sorcery. Then there was the ageless Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who has finally succumbed to Old Father Time with this his last rugby game. On this evidence, like with Schalk Brits and Chris Wyles on Saracens duty yesterday here at Twickenham, there is plenty of life left in him and he even kicked a conversion.
Eddie Jones all the while sat in the stands, watching his team concede the most points by an England side of 20 years and that came during the notorious ‘Tour of Hell’. Whenever the camera panned to him, he was frowning and with good reason. England conceded nine tries.
They are now looking for a new defence coach with Paul Gustard off to Harlequins. They need fresh impetus if they are to avoid seeing their World Cup charge crash into the buffers. Jones was without 22 or so players through injury and unavailability but this annual showdown at Twickenham normally comes with the prerequisite that England would beat this band of travelling entertainers.
The Barbarians did not play to England’s beat of the drum. Instead they brought their own rock’n’roll, causing beautiful carnage with even Loni Uhila getting in on the act with an offload of sheer effortless to bely his vast frame. Passes were thrown over-head, through legs and the players danced through England time and time again. Great to watch, worrying for England.
There was a quiet, celebratory-type atmosphere in Twickenham. An expectation that England would see off the Barbarians who, tradition dictates, would have spent longer in the pub this week than on the training paddock. But the word from inside the camp was this was the most professional set up in recent times — Pat Lam, the Bristol coach, is not one for half measures.
They have used drones, done extensive analysis on England with their inflated backroom team. They picked a team built to thrill, one which had the out-of-the-ordinary running through their veins. Show the Barbarians a well-organised England defence and they will find a way to stretch the pitch further than reasonably possible.
Ashton was in his element but this was far from a one-man effort. He said earlier in the week that a number of his scores for Toulon came thanks to Tuisova and Radradra, who were just magnificent, as he spent most of the time tracking their sense-defying breaks. But the sight of Ashton scoring with one of his ‘Ash-splashes’ would have no doubt caused Jones to raise an eyebrow.
Jones will do his best to play down the impact of this defeat. But the 63 points will make grim reading. George Ford played well while Elliot Daly was England’s best player. Mike Brown was out-of-sorts on the wing but they can take heart from Jack Singleton’s performance at hooker. But even though they scored six, there were few positives to take from this. Even Danny Cipriani’s return to the field was largely under a veil of anonymity until he helped teed up Jonny May’s 76th minute score, by which time they game was long gone.
The genius of the Barbarians was such that moments of brilliance are too numerous to remember, analyse or recount. But that Radrada-Tuisova axis was like nothing we have seen at Twickenham in many a year. They will party long into the night, deservedly so, further proving the Barbarians are no anachronism in the modern era.
For England, they will regroup and head to face the Springboks.
Before the game a lone bell rang out. It has not yet tolled on England’s World Cup charge, they have so much talent waiting in the wings but they need to get this team back on track. It was the first time in 20 years they have conceded this many points, while the Barbarians last won here in 2011.
It was far from ideal preparation for South Africa and England urgently need to arrest this losing run but for the rugby aficionado, watching the Barbarians was as close as you could get to rugby heaven.