Dylan Cleaver on sport
Sport analysis and comment from Dylan Cleaver

Dylan Cleaver: Black eye that tells a story of brutality


Nobody from either side was prepared to bend.If a face could tell you the story of a match, on Saturday night in Dunedin, it was James Haskell's.

There was England's robust loose forward - contemplating his team's mauling at the breakdown by a three-pronged Argentine assault and a referee they failed to engage with - wearing a grotesque yellowy-purplish welt around his left eye.

Haskell's eye reflected the brutality of the 80 minutes at Otago Stadium; the lack of subtlety; and the pursuit of destruction over ambition. His wound was more than a metaphor, it was the literal black-eye on the sport.

For much of the 240 minutes of rugby on Saturday that preceded the Dunedin showdown, we saw rugby's possibilities expressed (even Namibia's attempt to drop-kick Fiji off the park was adventurous in its own curious way). Argentina and England demonstrated the sport's impossibility - when two teams make the breakdown the game's only battleground and when both sides are prepared to break the laws to stop the other side gaining an inch, rugby cannot be played.

Some will try to blame Bryce Lawrence, the unfortunate referee in the middle of it, but that would be myopic. He whistled a merry tune but nobody was listening.

He even short-shifted England for 10 minutes when he lost patience with Dan Cole. Again, nobody from either side was prepared to bend.

Ironically, the game would have been better served if there had been an early brawl, where the card could have been flashed to both sides, clearing a bit more space, and the sting taken out of the game.

As it was, Argentina in particular were emboldened by the grief they caused at the breakdown.

Julio Farias Cabello, Juan Manuel Leguizamon and the magnificent Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe squeezed the life out of England's small-scale ambitions, forcing them into tactical and technical errors.

Were they allowed to get away with too much? Probably. Haskell cried eye-gouge when he exited the final breakdown. Later he resiled from that claim.

"I just got a hit in the clear out," he said. "Just the last breakdown, I got a bit het up when I got cleared out. I had hands in my face and I think it was just a bit of over-exuberance there. In the heat of the moment you react as you do, but it's nothing really.

"I was just stressed, it was a difficult game, I was under pressure, I got cleared out and I had a hand in my face, it's nothing."

If his original assertion was more accurate, that has to be acted upon. There is no place for eye-gouging in the game, nor should there be a place for the sort of knees-first slide made by Courtney Lawes into the neck of Mario Ledesma.

Rugby is a tough enough game when you stay inside the laws of foul play.

For all that, the closeness made for fascinating viewing. The atmosphere inside the stadium buzzed from well before the start to the final peep from Lawrence's whistle.

Both coaches, too, will have reasons to be optimistic as they look forward to clashes against Romania, Scotland and Georgia then, they will hope, quarter-finals.

They will argue that the sort of rugby they played, where you scrapped for every square inch of turf, was the sort of rugby that wins knockout matches.

You hope that's not the case, but history would tend to side with them.

- NZ Herald

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