It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic. Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.
We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.
For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.
But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose. A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.
Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)
The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.
Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity, led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.
What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.
It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.