England will head to South Africa next week off the back of their fourth straight defeat in a frantic and ultimately rather embarrassing 63-45 defeat by the Barbarians, with 15 tries lighting up a beautiful afternoon in south-west London for anyone not wearing the red rose.
For Eddie Jones, it could not have gone much worse. Chris Ashton, the exiled former England wing, scored three tries in 25 minutes, his side leaked nine tries, and followed the Six Nations defeats by Scotland, France and Ireland with another loss here ahead of the three Tests with the Springboks.
As well as Ashton’s hat-trick, All Black Victor Vito scored twice along with Finn Russell, the brilliant Semi Radradra, Malakai Fekitoa and Greig Laidlaw. England’s responses came through a Piers Francis double, plus Elliot Daly, Joe Launchbury and Jonny May, but they never led throughout and to be honest did not deserve anything more than they got given their shambolic defending.
It wasn’t hard pre-kick-off to select the one name that Jones would have least looked forward to seeing cross the whitewash, yet it took just three minutes for the ‘Ash Splash to return to Twickenham. 22 minutes later, Ashton was diving over the line for his third try, and every mane and his dog was wondering why he was playing in the black and white stripes as opposed to the red rose.
By half-time, nine tries had been scored and Jones was looking as uncomfortable as he did two months ago. No one could tell where the next try was coming from, but the one certainty was that the Baa-Baas were playing rugby the only way they know how to.
The first score came through poor defending more than anything as Chris Robshaw and Francis allowed the impressive Semi Radrada to burst between them in his own 22. He offloaded to his Toulon teammate Josua Tuisova, and he surged out of Mike Brown’s reach to go the whole way, only to pass to Ashton on the line to gift him a try at his former home.
Four minutes later he was at it again, as an early engagement against England allowed the Barbarians to go quickly from a scrum, with Tuisova feeding Ashton and his chip and chase seeing off the covering Daly to touch down. If the 58,166 in attendance were expecting a response from England, it didn’t come.
Instead, the Baa-Baas won a penalty deep in England’s 22, and delved into their creative playbook with an NFL-style snap – complete with ‘hut, hut, hut’ from scrum-half Rhodri Williams – confusing the English defence. With the ball played back to Russell, he chipped over the heart of the line and All Blacks No 8 Vito charged over to score.
Each try was celebrated with a different chant in the Barbarians huddle, and to be fair they were having a field day after being 21 points to the good in 12 minutes. But England, finally, rallied to get themselves into the match. Two tries in four minutes spurred them into life and lifted the crowd who were starting to fear an unthinkable rout was on the cards.
The first saw Daly, making his first start at full-back, display his leg power as he drove through the tackles of Matavesi and Russell, with the second seeing George Ford send Jack Singleton through a gap and the Worcester hooker was smart enough to spot the faster Francis on his shoulder, with the Northampton centre beating Ashton to score.
Ashton followed that by throwing a shocker of a pass towards Tuisova that completely missed the target, and it was starting to look like Jones would be vindicated in his assessment of the former Saracens wing, but in the 25th minute he bagged his hat-trick in some style as Radradra took the ball into contact, popped it up to the full-back and he pinned his ears to gas past Daly and score his third.
England responded immediately, with Robshaw winning the restart, offloading to Daly who sent Zach Mercer in for his first England try, and another score from Francis when he cut a beautiful line off Ford drew the hosts level after a rather daunting first quarter. In all the madness, England lost Henry Trinder to injury, meaning an early introduction for Danny Cipriani as Daly moved to the centre.
Scotland fly-half Russell has already hurt England once this year after his wonderful display in the Six Nations, and he punished them again here when he collected a pass from Ahston following a nice break through the midfield to go over for the Baa-Baas fifth try and score on the stroke of half-time to give the invitational side a 35-28 advantage.
The second half continued in the same vein, with the Barbarians attacking from all corners and making an early in-road through man-of-the-match Radradra, before England drew the ire of the crowd as Ford kicked a penalty at goal completely against the theme of the day. England soon got back across the whitewash though as Launchbury bundled his way over following a series of close-range drives – and a lengthy TMO check – but again the Baa-Baas hit back.
It was a lovely score as Fekitoa, Tuisova and prop Loni Uhila all managed to stay in touch and send Fekitoa back over with a series of offloads, and after Ashton just missed out on a fourth as he knocked on diving for the ball, they soon has another when Radradra and Tuisova combined to send the latter over in the corner – again with the wing unselfishly giving the ball to Laidlaw to score.
England got their sixth try when May ran onto a delicate Cipriani chip, but the game finished with the fairy tale ending as Vito crashed over for his second, with the retiring captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe fittingly landing the conversion from distance.
England: Elliot Daly; Jonny May, Henry Trinder (Danny Cipriani, 27), Piers Francis, Mike Brown (Denny Solomona, 50); George Ford, Ben Youngs (Dan Robson, 62); Joe Marler (Ellis Genge, 47), Jack Singleton (George McGuigan, 72), Kyle Sinckler (Nick Schonert, 62); Elliot Stooke (Josh Beaumont, 60), Joe Launchbury; Chris Robshaw, Tom Curry, Zach Mercer (Mark Wilson, 47).
Barbarians: Chris Ashton; Josua Tuisova, Semi Radradra, Josh Matavesi (Malakai Fekitoa, 54), Niyi Adeolokun; Finn Russell (Luke McAlister, 68), Rhodri Williams (Greig Laidlaw, 60); Denis Buckley (Loni Uhila, 48), Benjamin Kayser (Tatafu Polota-Nau, 57), John Afoa (Ramiro Herrera, 46); Ultan Dillane, Sateleki Timani (Sitaleki Timani, 60), Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Nili Latu, 53), Justin Tipuric, Victor Vito.
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