USA v England – Kobe, 26/09/19. My Rugby World Cup debut

Thank you so much to all those, including a number of England players, who sent me sympathetic messages after I was knocked unconscious late in the game in Kobe last Thursday. It was not exactly the World Cup impact I was hoping for but I am feeling better now and, with any luck, should be available for our last pool matches against Argentina and Tonga.

2019 Rugby World Cup
The proudest day in my career. Signing the national anthem before my first World Cup game against England in Kobe.

I have seen the footage of me falling at an angle and being tackled by Mark Wilson but, otherwise, I can’t remember anything about the incident. All I know is that I woke up on the stretcher having, apparently, been out for quite a while. The medical care I received was outstanding but my parents and my girlfriend were understandably worried. Happily the X-rays and scans only revealed minor damage to a shoulder and my tournament is, hopefully, far from over.

People have also been wondering about my recollections of the game’s opening seconds. When George Ford kicked off down the middle of the field my first thought was: ‘Good, I’m getting myself into the game early.’ The next second I’m being clattered.

The first thing to stress is that I bear absolutely no grudge towards Piers Francis. He wanted to start his World Cup with a bang and that’s literally what he did. When I was asked if I wanted to make a statement to his disciplinary hearing, I declined. It was the beginning of the game, nothing came of it and, contrary to popular belief, I don’t believe I was hit in the head. Trust me, you know when that happens. If anything, the contact felt like it was to my shoulder.

I didn’t see a huge problem with it and agree with the disciplinary panel’s verdict to dismiss the citing. I wish Piers all the best for the rest of the tournament and am glad he’s not been banned. There are a lot of big hits on the field but, ultimately, everyone is a rugby player and cares for each other.

England-centre-Piers-Francis-cited-for-dangerous-challenge-in-World-Cup-win-against-USA-2079772
The incident. First seconds of the game Piers Francis comes in for the challenge! (Photo – https://www.express.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/1183339/Piers-Francis-dangerous-challenge-Will-Hooley-Rugby-World-Cup

As current players, though, what is hard to ignore is the inconsistency of some of the decisions being given. Ultimately we have laws to follow and we should abide by them. That said, the margins are so small and the scrutiny so intense now. I would hate to be a referee at this World Cup. At the moment it just feels like they can’t go through a game without doing something wrong. You’re getting these horrible suggestions that because Player X plays for England he’s got away with it while Player Y from another nation doesn’t.

All of us – players, coaches and fans – just need to know exactly where we’re at. Maybe the referee’s assistants and TMOs could help out more. If not, I suspect controversial decisions are going to increase throughout the tournament, because of the physicality and importance of the games and the desire to prevent the opposition from offloading or enjoying a dominant carry. That’s why tacklers are aiming where they are: to try and stop the ball.

2019 Rugby World Cup
Not the result we wanted but could never fault anyone’s commitment and work rate. Here I’m wearing no 24 as my no 15 shirt was covered with blood.

If you are operating on the line you run a risk, of course. But sometimes, when you are giving it everything, technique can go out of the window. It’s the nature of our sport. It would certainly be a shame if it distracts people from this compelling World Cup. I don’t mind admitting I felt particularly emotional during both the USA and English anthems last Thursday. It was a surreal evening all round, from the moment I felt a tap on my shoulder in the tunnel. It was my old Saints academy colleague Lewis Ludlam, looking for a high five.

Luke Cowan-Dickie also caught my eye as we were walking out and made a funny face. Strangely it helped to settle me down and remember it was just another game, despite all the World Cup fanfares, the drums and the spider cameras.

Unfortunately the fun stopped there. We got no attacking ball and I spent the evening either throwing myself at Joe Cokanasiga or running around like a maniac trying to stop Ford whacking the ball into the corners. Playing behind a solid pack of forwards helps but I thought he was excellent. At times it seemed like he had the ball on a piece of string. We just couldn’t stop England’s set-piece power and I also thought Jonathan Joseph looked back to his best. The whole squad appears to be in a good place and I genuinely wish them well.

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