Barbarians embarrass England at Twickenham
There were red faces all round at Twickenham, the spectators burned by the sun, England burnished by the shame of losing to the scratch Barbarians side for the first time in seven years and conceding the most amount of points at home in 108 years of rugby at HQ.
The fixture was meant to be a loosener ahead of the tour to South Africa, and even though England were without their Saracens and Exeter players, this was a ramshackle, chastening performance.
The Quilter Cup may not have test match status but after a desperately poor 2018 Six Nations championship, England needed a boost. This is yet another setback ahead of their departure for South Africa next Saturday. The Springboks at Ellis Park in a fortnight’s time has a nightmarish tinge to it.
If such a public embarrassment needed any extra twist, it came from one of the Barbarians’ star turns, Toulon’s Chris Ashton. An Englishman in exile, he made sure that everyone back home would appreciate what they were missing with a hat-trick of tries in 25 minutes, all trademark sharp-eyed, sharp-heeled acts of athleticism.
England had few answers to the power plays of the Barbarians who led 21-0 within 12 minutes. They scored nine tries, Fijian centre Semi Radradra unstoppable with the strength of his running and elan of his passing. They made 751 metres across a coruscating afternoon, beating 34 defenders and making 12 clean breaks. On a day of such joyful rugby from them, with verve and nerve in equal measure, it is actually the cold stats that are so arresting. England missed 34 tackles. Chris Robshaw, normally implacable, had six blobs against his name.
As is Barbarians convention, they had only three training sessions and spent every midweek night out to dinner and events together, a no-holds-barred, 1970s-themed fancy-dress party the highlight.
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There was little upbeat news for England. Elliot Daly looked the part at full-back although that experiment didn’t last long as a reshuffle was needed when centre Henry Trinder went off with a head injury, Danny Cipriani coming on. Tom Curry battled manfully on the flank while fly-half George Ford quelled the doubters with a typically perceptive and engaged performance.
Of course, the full England side would have more clout and substance and would not be brushed aside in defence as happened here. Those Saracens reinforcements are much needed.
Ashton’s impact on the match was remarkable, even by the standards of a man whose try-scoring feats have seen his name etched into many a record book.
It was as if the 31-year-old had a point to prove, which, of course, he did. He is a poacher, a brilliant reader of play, sensing where the action will be and always on hand for the potential scoring pass. None of that is possible without a prodigious work ethic. Ashton is a grafter as well as a scorer, meriting all his tries for the effort expended.
His hat-trick owed much to the Toulon connection as he combined with wing Josua Tuisova and Radradra, the trio showing a fine sense of each other as the Barbarians’ free-wheeling rugby unfolded.
Radradra split the England midfield defence from within his own 22, Tuisova took it on and flipped up to Ashton as he crossed the line.
His second saw him chip and gather while the third, which followed Victor Vito’s, saw him track Finn Russell and take a simple inside pass. It was crisp, assured and showed up starkly with what hapless England offered. England have missed such potency, a failing put in sharp relief with Eddie Jones’ decision to select Harlequins’ full-back, Mike Brown, on the left wing.
The Barbarians were created to entertain, and Pat Lam’s side lived up to that tradition, never forgetting that in order to run free, the forwards have to first work hard to get some ball. Those beasts of burden kept their share of the bargain so that the backs could cut loose.
The pick of the Barbarians’ tries was the seventh when the forwards got in on the act themselves, lock Sitaleki Timani rounding off a sequence that started with a trademark tricky run from Malaka Fekitoa, skinning Robshaw, Tuisova taking it on before prop Loni Uhila flicked it up to his second-row forward to score.
Piers Francis scored two tries for England with Daly, Zach Mercer, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May getting the others.
Radradra, Vito, Russell and Greg Laidlaw were the other Barbarians try-scorers, a sun-kissed afternoon rounded off with the sight of retiring BaaBaas captain, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, kicking the conversion.