What’s wrong with England? We’re told preparations for the tournament were superb, (despite the performances against Wales) morale is high and that we possess the calibre of players to the damage in the World Cup again. Yet so far, they’ve stuttered through their opening two games, conceding 23 penalties, 2 sin binnings and looking inept at the ruck. Even the AA gets to a breakdown quicker than the England pack. So the camp have come out and announced the squad have had the standard ‘clear the air’ talks that come around every World Cup time. That’s all very well but I thought this was one happy group of campers? What’s the issue then? Martin Johnson’s management? After all, the phrase ‘clear the air’ suspiciously reminds any England supporter of Brian Ashton and his hapless decision-making of 2007. But at least we haven’t been thumped 36-0 by South Africa this time round! James Haskell called for players to pull no punches and criticise those in the squad whose standards aren’t up to scratch. Seems rather extreme. This isn’t a London bank. We don’t want internal sniping amongst the playing staff. I’m sure none of them are deliberately trying to lose.
So what is wrong? Well, as mentioned before, the breakdown is proving a major issue. England lack a genuine open-side, a real ball scavenger like Mc Caw, Pocock or even Wales’ new golden boy, Sam Warburton. As much as Lewis Moody charges round the field with a reckless disregard for his own well-being, he doesn’t posses the skill set required at 7 to challenge with the elite. England don’t possess anyone in their ranks capable of snaffling ball. And they don’t exactly compensate by committing extra numbers to the ruck, hence the lack of quick ball available. The discipline is also a joke. They are professionals, yet they play with as much understanding of the laws of the game as a group of 12 year olds playing for the first time in P.E. How hard is it to stay onside? Or take your hands out of a ruck when the ref clearly shouts “No Hands!?” I know most forwards have an I.Q similar to that of a cabbage but even so. Concede that many penalties to say for instance, New Zealand and Dan Carter and you’re looking at one serious beating.
The backs also seem to lack fluidity. There were signs of it returning against Georgia when they actually got their hands on the ball, but that is the main problem, getting their hands on the ball. England’s distribution to the back 3 is pretty woeful, neither Wilkinson or Flood have shown any signs of possessing the ability to unleash what has to be said, is a dangerous back three. Foden, Ashton and Cueto/Armitage are all dangerous broken field runners and England need to provide them with time and space and the ball to pick out the gaps. Aside from his neatly taken try against Georgia, Manu Tuilagi has been quiet so far, not smashing quite as many holes in the opposition’s midfield as fans had hoped for. Tindall as always looks about as potent as a limp fish, both and Shontayne Hape lack the subtlety in attack at the highest level, after all, international centres don’t really fall for the wrecking ball in a straight line trick. England need a man with the maverick talents of Quade Cooper, and whilst one exists in Danny Cipriani, he seems content on drinking his career down the pan.
Loss of form is also a concern. The players who lit up the 6 Nations are shining about as brightly as the black kit they donned for the opening game. Dylan Hartley is probably the most worrying. The bullocking hooker really seemed to have nailed his position in the starting 15 during the spring, yet he can probably be held most accountable for the lack of discipline and has lost his place to Steve Thompson. Messrs Youngs and Flood are no longer providing the spark that seemed to be the great hope for English rugby in the autumn, and whilst Youngs has been injured, Flood seems to have taken a bash to those all-important confidence levels. On a lesser note, players like Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Ben Foden are struggling to reproduce the levels we have seen and therefore begun to expect from them in a white jersey. It is difficult where the problem lies here. Fitness shouldn’t be an issue, neither should match practise by now, yet the squad that finally brought back the 6 Nations title does seem a shadow of its former self. Is this the management’s fault? The question has to be asked.
One thing is for certain, the media certainly aren’t helping. Their hounding of Tindall, and the rest of the players in question after ‘dwarfgate’ is disgraceful, anyone would think they took genuine pleasure in the failure of their national team. After all, if the squad stayed in and watched the paint dry on their hotel room walls, as the football team did in last summer’s World Cup, then the management would face criticism for that too. Make your minds up. In my mind, a spot of bungee jumping, or a bit of rough and tumble on a Queenstown dance floor can only be good for team spirit, a quality England seem to be lacking at the moment. All is not lost however, in contrary to the negative press surrounding our boys, we have in fact, won the opening two games, and face a showdown with a Scotland side who have been even more disappointing themselves. Win that, and suddenly a route to the final has appeared, given Ireland’s shock win over Australia. The French, if as expected, lose to New Zealand, await in the quarters, and coach Lievremont seems content as ever to hamper his side as much as possible thanks to his bizarre selection policy. Win that one too, and a Celtic semi final opponent looks likely, with Wales or Ireland set to do battle in a tasty looking quarter-final. Challenging this may be, it still looks distinctly winnable, so if England can get their act together, there is the real possibility of making three World Cup Finals in a row, which has to be said, is some achievement.