Have you ever wondered where the term 'dead rubber' comes from? Probably not, because you probably have things to do with your spare time, but I, on the other hand, am exceptionally sad and decided to find out where it came from. Apparently, some card game played by equally sad people - a game called 'rubber bridge' - is to blame, because that involves a series of 5 hands and it's occasionally the case where the last hand or 2 don't matter....is anyone still listening? Anyway, you can scrap all that, because the new definition is England v Uruguay, Manchester, Rugby World Cup 2015.
Well, OK, dead rubber in the sense that there was nothing to play for in the tournament, but there was plenty to play for by way of pride, by way of putting on a show for loyal fans who still wanted something to cheer about. Stuart Lancaster has his detractors but, as he selected a side largely brimming with young talent, he wanted to go out of this tournament - and potentially out of his job - on a positive note.
But, perhaps predictably, it got off to a bit of a damp start as England were lazily caught offside after just 30 seconds, allowing Uruguayan fly half Felipe Berchesi to nudge over a simple 3 points to give the South Americans the lead, and allow the rest of the world to snigger just that bit louder at England's fortune. Thankfully, though, it only took 6 minutes for the hosts to get some feel-good factor back and, unsurprisingly, it came thanks to three of their brightest young stars. Henry Slade flung a lovely 20 metre pass out wide towards his Exeter mate Jack Nowell, and when the winger kicked ahead it was fellow flyer Anthony Watson who won the race to dot down for the first try of the night. Farrell added the extras and, after such a dark week, it was refreshing for the loyal crowd who had arrived to cheer England on in any event to have something to cheer about - a glimpse into a potentially bright future.
It wasn't all perfect for England's young tyros, though, as George Ford was making a habit of making uncharacteristically bad calls and throwing hospital passes - perhaps due to a lack of strike running options in his backline. Worryingly, too, the amateur Uruguayans were being disruptive over the ball at the breakdown and physical in the tackle, defending solidly to keep the hosts out for the next 10 minutes. In the end, it was the grizzliest of veterans who showed the kids how to do it next, with Nick Easter burrowing his way over for England's second off the back of a driving maul, before he repeated the trick from a ruck 5 minutes later, showing all his experience to spot the smallest of gaps following a Danny Care snipe. Owen Farrell converted both, and England led 21 - 3 with just over a quarter of the match gone.
The hosts seemed to be playing some positive stuff in patches, but too often they lost control of the pill attempting one too many offloads, or allowed the enthusiastic South Americans back to barrel their way through the ruck to make a mess of the hosts' possession. It was obvious, too, that England were lacking a running threat in the backs - which was to be expected with four 1st receivers selected - and that meant that, whilst there were some lovely hands by the likes of Alex Goode and Slade, all too often Nowell and Watson were getting the ball with half a dozen very angry Uruguayans hurtling across to them with the express intention of introducing their shoulders to the wingers' ribs. It was a second quarter performance which almost summed up England over the last 4 years - plenty of promise, even more frustration.
No further scores were added before the break, although lock Santiago Vilaseca was shown a yellow card for a cynical breakdown infringement, and you got the sense that Stuart Lancaster expected more from a side who were fighting to regain some modicum of pride from this tournament. Thankfully, the hosts acted on this from the first minute of the restart and immediately showed more accuracy, sending Watson over in the corner for his second of the match after a clever set piece move involving Ford and Goode. Farrell missed the conversion for once, but he should have had more chances to make amends over the next five minutes, only for Chris Robshaw and James Haskell (more than once) to drop the ball in promising positions. Haskell's in particular was a complete howler, as Farrell's excellent pass put him into a three on one situation, only for old-spade hands to absolutely butcher it.
Luckily, England didn't have to wait long for another score as Henry Slade, who had shown touches of class running and passing all night, charged down a kick and showed great footballing ability to fly-kick the ball up field and touch down for a maiden try. Farrell was off target once again, but he made no mistake converting Nowell's try 2 minutes later, after Goode had returned a kick with interest to put Care into space, allowing the scrum half to draw the man and put the Chiefs flyer in for his first of the night. The score was now 38 - 3 after a hour, and you got the impression that the hosts were just starting to go through the gears a bit now as their gnarly opponents started to tire - particularly seeing as they had played Fiji just 5 days prior.
With the pack now dominant and Jonathan Joseph on for Farrell to create some mayhem out wide, England showed their superior class and fitness over the final 20 minutes. Nick Easter burrowed his way over for a well-earned hat-trick in identical fashion to his first score - after directing a well-structured rolling maul - and it was a fair reward for a tireless display from the Quins man who has spent most of the last 4 years thinking his international career was over. Saracens substitute duo George Kruis and Jamie George were making good headway with the ball in hand, barrelling through tacklers but, after England had remained disciplined to repel a brief Uruguayan assault on their line, it was a deft, lofted pass from Ford which unlocked the defence for the men in white's next score, walked in by Nowell in the corner for his second. He had a hat-trick soon after, too, after Joseph skipped past his man in typical style to give Slade the chance to put Nowell in for another simple score.
The downside to all of this, of course - aside from the fact that this was all entirely irrelevant in the context of the World Cup - was that Ford had missed all 3 of his attempted kicks from out wide, although he did nail his last conversion of the night from under the sticks after England were awarded a penalty try for a deliberate offside by Uruguay on their own line to stop a certain score following surges upfield by Joseph, Wigglesworth and Ford.
And so England's World Cup is done. Dusted. Confined to the history books. Perhaps this game can offer English fans the finest of silver linings - a glimpse of some of the undoubted talent they have at their disposal to take the team forward over the coming years. A sobering fact that emerged during the game was that, after Wales had failed to get a bonus point against the Wallabies, a draw against the men in red would have been enough to see the hosts through. Robshaw will wonder what could have been. But the truth is that it wasn't just one decision that cost England to influence this World Cup. A World Cup that, very much for England, 'could have been'.
England Player Ratings
1. Mako Vunipola - 7 - As usual, looked knackered from the first whistle with his socks down by his ankles and his constant slouch, but he carried relentlessly throughout - although he didn't make the big busts we perhaps expected. On top in the scrums, too.
2. Tom Youngs - 6 - He was flawless in the lineout but the bloke looked knackered after being the most effective English forward in the loose over the last fortnight. Substituted at half time looking like he was being held together by sellotape.
3. Dan Cole - 7 - Won his battle in the scrum, although not with the aplomb we might have expected. Useful in the loose, too, with some good link play, but still seems to be some way short of the devastating best we saw in the Six Nations and for Leicester last season.
4. Joe Launchbury - 8 - Picked up where he left off against the Wallabies and was a tireless presence on the carry and a nuisance in the lineout. An absolute work horse. If only he wasn't so quiet and didn't look like Cupid's big brother then he could be a serious contender for England skipper.
5. Geoff Parling - 7 - Dominant in the set piece, as you would expect, and linked up play pretty well too. Can be pretty happy with his work this tournament.
6. James Haskell - 6 - A typical Haskell performance, in many ways. His pure power regularly got him over the gainline but his spade-hands let him down on more than one occasion, and he lacked the killer instinct and technique to really dominate the breakdown.
7. Chris Robshaw - 6 - Another to look tired, there was no doubting his effort but the quality of his output was, once again, not up to expectations. One dropped try-scoring opportunity sticks in the mind and was worryingly outplayed at the breakdown by a window-cleaner. Part of me hopes that this isn't his last game as skipper, because he's better than this.
8. Nick Easter - 9 - Not particularly fashionable, but I have to say the old man of the team was a class act, even against limited opposition. Aside from a well-taken hat-trick, his work rate was phenomenal - carrying the ball 31 times. Something that Ben Morgan could learn from, perhaps.
9. Danny Care - 7 - Offered glimpses of the tempo he can bring to a game which again begs the question as to why he wasn't on the bench - or even starting, given Youngs' injury - against the Wallabies. Had a key role in a couple of the tries without really tearing it up, like we know he can.
10. George Ford - 6 - It was clear that he wasn't entirely comfortable playing with no strike runners in his midfield or at full-back, which was understandable, and his decision making was iffy early on. Grew in authority as the game progressed but his missed kicks were a bit worrying.
11. Jack Nowell - 8 - Showed what he's all about, with good balance and strength, and was probably England's most effective running threat. Picked up a deserved hat-trick and should have been involved earlier in the tournament.
12. Owen Farrell - 6 - Kicked pretty well off the tee and was solid in defence, although you do sense that he sometimes goes searching for the big hit too much. Distributed too often without committing defenders but did show some nice touches and made a couple of breaks.
13. Henry Slade - 8 - I have to admit that I was worried that the pressure of being effectively proclaimed as 'the savior of English rugby' would weigh heavily on his shoulders, but he looked like a class-act. A couple of gliding runs and gorgeous passes caught the eye, and his footballing ability for his score was top notch. Wasted at 13 though with no strike runner inside, though. His future is at 10 or 12.
14. Anthony Watson - 7 - Usually got the ball with the entire Uruguay backline drifting on to him because of the lack of runners inside, but his finishing was again top drawer. Always looks lethal in space.
15. Alex Goode - 7 - Nothing overly spectacular from Goode but his handling and distribution was what we've come to expect. Had a hand in a couple of the tries when the delay of his pass was key.
Subs - 7 - Everyone had a positive impact, but especially Joseph, who seemed to beat a man with every touch of the ball and helped set up a couple of late scores. Jamie George and George Kruis were both busy, too.