The day had arrived. Sleepless nights rose into restless mornings. Weeks of waiting, four years of yearning, had arrived at this Scottish Saturday sunrise. The motley group begin to emerge from their slumbers: the rugby-bred bunch of boys hungry for entertainment, shunning their books for a day of voyeuristic delight, the buoyant Biomed student determined to bring her footballing tribalism to England’s cause.
Selection had dominated the week. Ford was meant to offer brains, Barrett threat to the lineout, but most controversially, the chef had gone for sausages to bolster the pack of bacon, eggs and mushrooms and bring added weight to the superstitious ritual fry-up that had carried the troops so far.
As the pre-match preamble built to its climax, opinions began to fly, gently mocking The Guardian’s view of an ‘era-defining epic’ in an attempt to feign indifference. The toast was buttered, the breakfast served and the haka began the proceedings. “They’re in an arrow-head. What will they do?” “It’s ‘V’ for victory.” “It’s just like the French.” Those gathered nervously attempted to summon the Gallic ghosts of Cardiff, hoping helplessly for a repeat of that great 2007 upset.
One final thought before kick-off fills the air: ‘Why are they so much better than us?’ Unfathomable mutterings try to explain the aura of the All Blacks, try to give reason to the unsurmountable mountain built on decades of Lomus, McCaws and Carters. “But, they’re not playing today – maybe we have a chance.” The foolish optimism is shaken off with hushed tones as the referee blows life into the action.
The sole Scot raises his head, “I don’t care about who wins, I just want to see good rugby.” Before he can be shot down with indignation, the group are carried away by a flurry of English attacks. It’s Lawes, it’s Sinckler, it’s Ford, and then its Tuilagi. He’s over. After 98 seconds the room bursts with elation, shock shining on faces trying to hide their inner hope.
Calm is reasserted, seats are retaken, we’ve been here before. Remember last year, remember Cardiff, remember the Calcutta Cup. There’s still too long left.
But, still England keep coming. “Have New Zealand had the ball?” The outrageous impertinence of England tames the All Black machine, battering them repeatedly with carry after carry. Sigh after sigh raises around the room only to be deflated by a knock-on.
New Zealand break. With the ferocity of a caged lion and the deftness of a stinging wasp, they offload their way down the pitch only to be scuppered at the last. The nerves jangle in the air as silence assumes the accepted course.
Yet England refuse to budge. Lawes steals the lineout and once again they are in the All Black half, pressing their foot against the throats and the room is unable to breathe. Then it happens, Underhill is under the sticks, the world is upside-down. Or is he? They come back for a crossing. “Bloody TMO.” “Well, there go our chances.” The group show the scars of previous failed campaigns.
Ten minutes in the half. “This is the time: the All Blacks always score before half-time.” But, they don’t. In fact, England do. The steely eyes of George Ford replace the twitchy stare of Owen Farrell to slot the three points and stretch the lead into double figures before the break.
The endless break of over-jubilant praise for England. With breakfast ingested, the room is left with jittery toilet runs and the voice of Sir Clive Woodward crowning a performance that is only half complete.
“Tell that man to be quiet. And where do you think you’re going? No one is allowed to move.” The tension of anticipation descends over the group as ideas of library intermissions and work shifts fade among the realisation that they are in for the long haul.
The second-half starts with over-confident commentators giving stats about New Zealand’s blank scorecard and Farrell’s injury. Sam Cane joins the fray in a Kiwi throw of the dice which pleases the armchair coaches that have outwitted Steve Hansen’s masterstroke.
Stress unfurls across the spectators’ faces as they lean in intently for the second half to get underway, preparing for the inevitable All Black backlash.
Yet, once again England are the ones attacking. Then there’s an interception, followed by another, the craziness of the action telling on the strain of the bodies on the sofa.
The result: an England lineout, five metres out. An England try. “That’s a classic Ben Youngs snipe,” our Scottish pundit pipes in.
Bodies jump around the room, lampshades are battered, but on the screen the white shirts stay calm and collected. Then the TMO – “He must be a New Zealander” – denies them again as fickle fate seems to switch allegiance to the enemy.
Jonny May and Kyle Sinckler hobble off as the sofa-dwellers spot signs of English exhaustion creeping onto the pitch. The faulty lineout is a sure sign and New Zealand are on the scoreboard with a Jamie George assist. The black tide is imminent.
Yet, there again is Tuilagi. Charging up is Itoje. Over the ball there is Curry. And to cap it off you have Underhill, inexhaustible, animalistic and smashing Jordie Barett back, taking two more men with him, refusing to lie down and let the All Black masters exert their authority.
Slowly the clock begins to tick away. Each New Zealand half-break is greeted with a wince, each missed tackle accompanied by a gasp as knees turn from intermittent shakes to floor-moving shudders.
Still, it is England who get the points, three more for Ford, followed by another three as those who doubted him hours before fall in love with their nerveless commander.
Twelve points, with ten minutes to go. Confident commentators become cocky in warming-up the Kiwi death-knell, but our scarred spectators offer no such concession, with fear of a miraculous comeback never leaving their minds.
Sevu Reece makes a break and then it is Dane Coles versus Ford for what seems like the match. Against the laws of physics, the smaller man grapples the hooker to the floor and the fresh Mark Wilson stamps his mark on this history with a glorious turnover.
The minutes begin to fade, a missed Ford penalty more important for the minute spent than the points spurned. The All Blacks pull out all their aces, trying to find a rabbit among their tricks, but the unrelenting English defence continues to hunt them like wolves deprived of dinner.
Then, the gong goes. The clock is in the red and England have done it, the ball is out.
The room sits silent in a state of disbelief. The slowly rotating heads enquire in each other’s eyes what they have just experienced, connected eternally by this shared utopia in which the impossible became real. While the fans had been jumping their way across bars and living rooms, the men in white had kept their cool and claimed the victory.
This was the epic that we had been promised. Even then, Homer could never have written a hero as ubiquitous as Itoje. No creation of Virgil could match the tenacity of Underhill and Curry, the power of Tuilagi nor the composure of Farrell and Ford.
Bloodied and bruised, these men had carried a divided nation on their shoulders to defeat an irrepressible foe. They had shown sport’s endless ability to unite die-hards and newcomers in a fantasy world of elation and despair where life seems balanced on split-second decisions.
And as the room began to wake up and contemplate the tedium of their Saturday routines, there was one reassurance. There’s now the final next week.
Image: DIALLO 25 via Wikimedia Commons