The new interpretations of the breakdown is music to the ears of John Mitchell, the England defence coach, who believes that come the Autumn Nations Cup their wealth of back-row talent will give Eddie Jones’s side an early advantage over their rivals.
England’s dual-openside approach paid off this time last year as Sam Underhill and Tom Curry became a focal point of their run to the Rugby World Cup final, which continued into this year’s Six Nations albeit with the latter deployed at No 8 in the absence of Billy Vunipola.
However, behind Underhill and Curry lies a swollen pool of flankers at Jones’s disposal. Ben Earl has forced his way into the England set-up this year alongside Mark Wilson and Lewis Ludlam, while 23-year-old Jack Willis has thrown his hat well and truly into the ring with a series of man-of-the-match performances to fire Wasps into the Premiership play-offs, along with Curry’s twin brother Ben.
These loaded back-row reserves are no surprise to England’s closest rivals, given their improvement around the breakdown since Jones first took over. But Mitchell believes there is something within how referees are judging the ruck that will play into their hands when northern hemisphere international rugby resumes later this month.
“With my experience now … if you had asked me that when I was back involved in New Zealand I would probably say that I would love it,” Mitchell said of the new interpretations, which has seen an emphasis placed on purebred ball-winners who also have the awareness to correctly time their attack on possession due to the faster ruck speeds.
As Joshua Cheptegei closed in on a staggering 10,000m men’s world record (26:11) on Wednesday there was an unmistakable blur of lime green painting the Ugandan’s path towards greatness.
The 24-year-old snatched the standard at the meeting in Valencia to complement his equally astonishing 5,000m feat months earlier (12:35). A colossal night for athletics was complete after Ethiopian and fellow Nike athlete Letesenbet Gidey had earlier seized supremacy in the women’s 5,000m (14:06).
It confirmed a new dawn for the sport, which has been forced to adapt like no other in 2020 in the age of Covid-19, bruised by the postponement of the Olympic Games and deprived of a major championship. Athletes have refused to allow their training to go to waste though, with glorified time trialling and technology providing intrigue from the public to temporarily replace fierce competition and the lure of medals.
The gripping spectacle of NN’s ‘World Record Day’ saw many eyes drawn to the feet of Cheptegei, who took six seconds off Kenenisa Bekele’s previous record, which had stood for 15 years. The lime green swoosh is the signature of the new ZoomX Dragonfly spikes, which Nike hope will revolutionise the track in the same way that the Alphafly has done for Eliud Kipchoge on the road in the marathon. They contain a full-length plate and a revolutionary foam known as Pebax, with the sportswear giant boasting that they are the “fastest shoes ever”.
Cheptegei also followed a series of flashing lights on the perimeter of the infield known as Wavelight technology. While this is undoubtedly informative for viewers at home, it is also clearly an advantage for today’s athletes when looking to dial in a desired pace.
The ghost of Bekele’s 2005 effort then, in the form of neon green lights, failed to escape Cheptegei’s metronome-like rhythm, but now, with Tokyo on the horizon, a debate over technology and fairness lingers.
“The main thing for me is I’m happy with what I wear,” explains Jake Wightman, a New Balance athlete who ran the second fastest British 1,500m of all time in Monaco two months ago. “I never feel like I’m at a disadvantage because the spikes I wear are as good as I could ask for.
“I believe a spike is a spike, you will get minimal advantages from that. The hard work is done away from what footwear you’re wearing, in training or in the gym.
Despite talk of star attacking talents, it was centre-back Millie Turner who would be the difference-maker, heading in from a corner on 67 minutes to settle the match and three points that, for the moment at least, take United top. For Spurs, here was a third defeat in their opening four matches and another reason why the sooner they can introduce superstar Alex Morgan to the fray, the better.
There was a sense of anti-climax when the teamsheets came out and Morgan’s name was nowhere to be seen. Beyond the neatness of this fixture, broadcast live on both sides of the Atlantic and promising three marquee talents from the United States Women’s National Team, the sense is Morgan is a week away from full match fitness. The visitors kept their end of the deal, starting both Tobin Heath and Christen Press in a front three.
That is not to say Morgan has not already had an influence on this Spurs side. Every lunch has been spent with a different member of the squad to acquaint herself with her new team-mates, while time in training is not spent solely on her own quest for competitive action, taking the team’s younger forwards under her wing.
Perhaps, then, it should have been no surprise Spurs’ best moments came through adopting Morgan’s traits of harrying the opposition and forcing rather than expecting to get what’s yours. Alas, without the 32-year old’s quality, those moments, ultimately few and far between, came to nothing.
This was always going to be an open game. That’s generally the way it goes between these two. And though the goals are usually skewed United’s way – they’ve won all four of their games against Spurs by at least three goals – two should have been shared evenly inside the opening 10 minutes.
Katie Zelem could have put the visitors ahead straight out of the gate, free between the penalty spot and six-yard box but unable to contort her body enough to direct her header on target. The better chance fell to Spurs’ Rosella Ayane.
An attempt to play out from the back led to an awry pass from Leah Galton that Ayane was quickest upon. But with the odds and time on her side, she opted for a first-time attempt which rolled wide of the right-hand post. Miss aside, this was a tick that hassling this United side would pay dividends, a tactic Spurs maintained as best they could.
Rafael Nadal moved within one win of a record-equalling 20th men’s singles Grand Slam title by reaching the French Open final with a comfortable 6-3, 6-3, 7-6(0) victory over Diego Schwartzman on Friday.
Nadal was beaten by the 12th seed a little over two weeks ago on the claycourts in Rome but the 12-time French Open champion showed he was still the undisputed king of Roland Garros as he notched up a 10th win in 11 meetings over the Argentine.
A victory on Sunday for the 34-year-old left-hander, against either world number one Novak Djokovic or fifth-seeded Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, will tie him with Roger Federer’s men’s singles record of 20 major titles.
The Spaniard reached his 13th French Open final without dropping a set in this year’s edition.
Schwartzman, playing his first Grand Slam semi-final, had two breakpoints in the opening game but Nadal saved both to win the game after battling for 14 minutes.
The Spaniard went on to break the Argentine twice in each of the first two sets.
The duo traded double service breaks in the third set before Nadal aced the tiebreak without losing a point. Schwartzman found the net with a return to hand Nadal victory in three hours and nine minutes.