Scoooooooooooooop!

So, it’s open season at St Boshington’s – the recently-leaked RFU review of the tournament is out, and it does not make for pretty reading. The only people who seem to come out of it with any credit are Graham Rowntree and Tom “Woody” Wood – and the rest seemed to be engaged in constant squabbling and disagreements, which range from the predictable (“we had no gameplan”) to the petty (“we had to drive in traffic”).
Now, a lot has been written about how Johnno bottled it after their Lansdowne Road tonking, how England reverted to a dire brand of rugby and how consistency of selection evaporated in the face of media pressure, but we knew all that already.
And given the way the RWC went for England, the breadth of the moaning was entirely predictable – a modern version of Tolstoy’s classic line springs to mind – happy families all wear black and get Craig Joubert to work for them, every unhappy family is unhappy in their own way. Every team apart from the winners (and possibly Argentina) went home giving off about something (the coach, barracking of their star player, referees applyication of the laws, bias towards big teams, etc.).
The most surprising element to us was as follows. If you looked at the England squad pre-tournament and asked, Who are the biggest dickheads here who are likely to rock the boat?, you would have settled on younger lads – Ashton, Armitage and Hartley perhaps. You would have said the Shaws, Moodys and Tindalls of this world are the good eggs, the leaders, the ones who have been there and done it – they will be the ones to grasp the nettle, and guide the younger players through the tournament.
Yet the opposite happened – Tindall let the side down completely with his antics in Queenstown, Moody played shop steward and demanded more money before getting on the plane, and Shaw disappeared completely. Contrast this to Ben Youngs taking over coaching duties (then not being picked), and Tom Wood earning the respect of his peers (notwithstanding the jeering at players who trained hard) by always giving 100% in training despite having no chance of being picked.
The core of young men who had dragged Northampton from the depths of the Championship to the cusp of European glory last season – Hartley, Wood, Ashton, Foden – were marginalized in the team hierarchy in favour of the remaining men of 2003 (in complete contrast to Wales, for example). In a sense, who can blame Johnno – the 2003 team were real men who knew what was needed and did it on the pitch when it mattered – witness Clive Woodward being shooed away before extra time in the final that year.
Johnno gave those men the role of leaders of a team still in transition and they failed him utterly, behaving in a manner they would never have when Johnno and Lawrence Bruno Nero were the team generals. Johnno was simply too loyal to these men.  And they thoroughly let their country down, something the two above heroes never did in their playing days.
Finally, while the RFU is frantically compiling a report on who leaked this report, this might just be the best thing that ever happened to English rugby.  There can be no more papering over the cracks.  The coaches’ positions are no longer tenable, Johnno has already walked the plank, and surely now, England will build a new side around the likes of Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and the Bens Youngs and Foden.  A new, experienced, respected head coach, with a team of his choosing, is the first order of the day.
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Bosh it, kick it, stick it up the jumper, but just don’t run it.

When England beat Australia 35-18 in November it was the most lauded international performance of the year, and not just because it was England. Here was Johnson’s New England! Playing with width and pace!  It was a handsome win, owing much to running with the ball in the players’ actual hands, and a pack notable not so much for their chest measurements as their mobility, with Croft, Lawes and Moody to the fore.  England took their newfound attacking game into the Six Nations and easily disposed of Wales and Italy, and if they spluttered a bit through the second half of the campaign, they topped the log nonetheless.

But now, on the eve of the World Cup, all the talk in Camp England is of reverting  to what Martin Johnson describes as ‘cup rugby’ (translation: bosh and boot) and even flying wing Chris Ashton has said that England will ‘kick the leather off the ball if they have to’. Sounds terrific. The squad, loaded with five props, 17 forwards, and not a sniff of an openside flanker or a creative midfielder, is geared towards playing only one way.  And it seems Jonny Wilkinson is set to displace Flood at 10, a surefire sign that scores will be racked up in multiples of three.

So, what was the point in developing the fast-paced game that dismantled Australia and won England their first Six Nations since 2003, only to revert when it most matters to the old dull England that gave us such thrilling encounters as drawing 15-15 with Scotland?  Is this the shrewd thinking of a World Cup winner who knows how to navigate his way through knockout rugby?  Or has Jonno simply bottled it?  We suspect it’s the latter.  Perhaps Jonno’s thighs are moistening as the impending tournament stirs memories of his 2003 triumph, which was won with, shall we say, a less than exciting brand of rugger.  But that England pack was littered with world class players – the current one is nowhere near as good.  Looking at their group opposition – namely Scotland and Argentina – it looks like the best way for England to beat them is to put a bit of pace and width on it.  Why do these two dogged but uninspiring sides the favour of dragging yourself down to their level?
It’s enough to make us revisit our forecast that England will make a semi-final.  Perhaps this will be the year France, who are looking good, and will be happy to play it either way, finally get on top of them.