Willis’ unusual Twickenham debut

Jack Willis made his England debut after impressing with Wasps in the Premiership last season

You see the line. You drive hard with your legs, twist, turn and you are across. A capacity crowd of 80,000 screams. The dream debut.

After a first cap that was delayed by two years for Jack Willis, that is how it should have been.

But of course, this is 2020 and you have to take the wins where you can.

It may have been a strange atmosphere at an empty Twickenham, but after coronavirus kept English rugby out of its home for eight months the players were simply glad of the opportunity to complete a ruthless six-try mauling of Georgia.

With southern hemisphere sides unable to travel north for November as they normally do, the Autumn Nations Cup was born to keep international rugby alive.

After the Six Nations delivered a lacklustre final super Saturday two weeks previously, there were hopes this one-off tournament in the strangest of years could provide some rugby exciting enough to distract fans from current world events.

But an unusual tone was set early on in England’s first pool match.

The players experienced a silent walk from the bus to the dressing rooms instead of the usual South-West London welcome.

Queues for the bars and groups of grown adults jovially singing in fancy dress were replaced by Twickenham walkways that took on an eerie silence.

Bins lined up in front of a closed Twickenham bar
Instead of fans, bins lined the walkway in front of a Twickenham bar

As if to deliberately make things stranger, Georgia were the team wearing England’s customary white while the hosts opted instead for blue.

After a minute’s silence to mark Rugby Against Racism teams disbanded awkwardly and anticlimactically, feeling the absence of the home crowd to spur them on towards kick-off.

The rain that had been pouring all day paused briefly for the first half, but a grey sky loomed and the damage to any prospect of running rugby had already been done on the slippery Twickenham pitch.

Initially the Georgians breathed some life into the hollow stadium, creating an atmosphere all on their own.

Relishing a first-ever trip to the home of rugby, the visiting subs loudly willed on their side as they heroically kept England at bay.

But eventually Willis had his moment. Having impressed week after week with Wasps in the Premiership last season, England head coach Eddie Jones could no longer stubbornly ignore calls to give the 23-year-old a first cap.

Willis was due to tour South Africa with England in 2018, but missed out in the end because of a knee injury.

And the flanker insisted that, fans or no fans, scoring at Twickenham on his debut was something he had dreamed of since he “was a young lad”.

Hooker Jamie George also deserved to hear the adoration of rugby-starved fans as he completed a hat-trick.

In a year in which many have learned to expect the unexpected and adapt accordingly George took his hat-trick – the first scored by an England men’s hooker – in his stride.

The hosts may have been playing tier-two opponents, but three tries in one Test do not come along that often.

The 30-year-old played his feat down, though, giving most of the praise to his fellow forwards given all his scores came from mauls.

“It is quite an embarrassing situation,” George told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“Fundamentally there are eight people, maybe 10 when the backs come in, pushing, and I just happen to be on the ball. There is not a huge amount of skill that goes into it.”

Jones has spoken about the importance of giving the nation a boost with his side’s rugby and he had frequently discussed tactical discipline in the lead-up to Saturday’s game against Georgia.

Those two things do not always go hand in hand as George’s lack of enthusiasm at his mauling hat-trick suggests.

There may have been few fireworks at Twickenham, but there were some sparks to excite England fans.

Jonathan Joseph, playing on the wing instead of at centre, had been told by Jones he had free rein on the London turf and he made the most of it.

Before an injury forced him off the field at the end of the first half, the Bath flier had twice danced through Georgian defences – the second occasion leading to a try for Elliot Daly.

And then there was Willis. His try on debut might have shone brighter had it not been overshadowed by a hooker’s hat-trick, but his characteristic breakdown burglary also caught eyes.

The Wasps forward flaunted his impressive flexibility in the first 20 minutes when he bravely burrowed his way into the breakdown alone and retrieved the ball from Georgian hands.

Still, it may not have been the debut he had envisaged for himself, or the electric England performance fans hoped for against weaker opposition.

There were no supporters at Twickenham to welcome Willis into the England fold, but there was at least rugby. And that will have to be enough for now.

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