Meltdown

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.

Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

England – Revolution or Evolution? Part 2

Stuart Lancaster revealed his 32-man squad for the Six Nations this luncheon, with nine new faces arriving.  He’s kept faith with a core of tight forwards, (Cole, Stevens, Palmer, Deacon, Hartley) but outside that dark region it’s going to be a new-look England.  We can expect to see a backrow featuring Ben Morgan at 8, and any two of Wood, Robshaw and Croft.  10-12-13 will be interesting and it’s not entirely clear how that will look.  Charlie Hodgson (yes, him) has been recalled, and Lancaster may see him as the wily old head to steer the ship from 10 while the young guns busy themselves around him.  It will look like a mad call to Hodgson’s many detractors, but in Flood’s absence there aren’t that many other compelling options.  Still, it looks a weak point.

Some things never change though, and it seems Lancaster couldn’t resist picking a couple of inside-centre boshing machines in Barritt and Turner-Hall; while that in-vogue openside remains as elusive as ever, with Andy Saull having to bide his time in the Saxons squad.  Still, it’s a brave new-ish world and all that, and we’ll watch with intrigue as they travel to Murrayfield for their first game.

Good luck to them, we say. They’ll need it – the carping has started already, in fact, it started before the squad announcement. Here’s Lawrence Bruno Nero when asked if Ben Morgan and Owen Farrell should make the first XV:

“No. The lads need to experience the culture and the environment.” 

Oh dear. Would that be the culture of self-aggrandisement, and the environment of oafish behaviour? Surely the whole plan was to build a new culture from the bottom up.

Now, bear in mind that this is about Morgan and Farrell, the only two newbies who are nailed on to start against Scotland – Farrell has been the stand-out English back in this years Boshiership and Morgan hardly went from turning down the Saxons to qualify for Wales last year to switching allegiances just to hold a tackle bag for Thomas the Tank Engine. [Aside: the “Who is Ben Morgan?” pieces in the English press show a worrying insularity – do England really have nothing to learn from the Celts? Morgan is a Lion in waiting.]

What we also don’t understand is why there was no requirement for the likes of Shontayne Hape to learn the “culture” – he wasn’t even English, but was fast-tracked into the squad with nary a peep from Dallaglio. Maybe there is one rule for ageing boshers and another for young tyros.

The ’03-ers are rightly considered Heroes of English Rugby, and all have retired with unimpeachable reputations (on the field anyway). The problem for English rugby is that many have retired to the soft seats of the media, and their opinions on the current national set-up (again, rightly) carry a lot of weight. You can’t shut them up, but every unconstructive utterance such as Dallaglio’s will erode the fledgling confidence (such as it is) of the new generation. Plus, as we are tired of banging on about, it will remind everyone that the team aren’t doing as well as ’03… and are daring to pass the ball wide in the process. Ergo – bosh it up the middle to win.

To rub salt into the wound, and reduce the pressure on the likes of Farrell, Lawrence finished with the Lampard-esque rallying call:

 “Of course England can win the World Cup”

Stopping just sort of  “… because we deserve it.” Here at Cordite Towers, we wish the newbies, especially Farrell and Morgan all the best – it’s not going to be an easy ride.

PS. of course, the real indicator of the new culture in Team England is this: if Chris Ashton does his charming swallow dive when he scores his first try in the Lancaster era, forget about it.

England – Revolution or Evolution? Part 1

It’s a huge week for England – Stuart Lancaster will be announcing his 32-man Six Nations squad, and we all will hope that the farce of RWC11 will be put firmly behind them.

Of the XV that started against France in the quarter-final, no fewer than seven (Thommo – retired, Deacon – injured, Moody – retired, Wilko – retired, Tuilagi – injured, Easter and Cueto (already told they’re cut)) and two of the subs (Shawsie – retired, Haskell Inc – expanding the brand in Japan) definitively won’t be donning the red rose in Murrayfield in three and a bit weeks. Tindall has gone too, and the new broom is likely to sweep away a few others.

Lancaster’s binning of Danny Care for his idiotic (and dangerous) behaviour sent a powerful message – no longer will Johnno’s cloak of loayalty be thrown around the players – they will need to prove they are good enough men as well as good enough players for England.

We can expect some changes in addition to the above – Lancaster has intimated that dull and conservative gameplans are to be left to Deccie – word is a boshing 12 is off the table for example. But how far is the boat going to be pushed out here? Are England going to do a Lieveremont 08 and pick a Francois Trinh-Duc to groom him for RWC15? Or is it going to be more gradual? It would be all well and good flooding the squad with new names, but the style of play has got to change as well as the personnel.  Let’s look at the question in 3 key areas, as we ask: will Lancaster be a Roundhead or a Cavalier, a Robespierre or a Louis XVI…

Backrow:

Since Neil Back retired, England have struggled to find a good backrow balance. When Moody isn’t fit (often), they tended to shoehorn a blindside into the 7 shirt – Worsley or Haskell for example. England have had a surfeit of uninspiring blindsides in recent years (the two mentioned above, or Tom Croft) and the lack of a real fetcher has tended to make the ball to the backs even more stodgy.

Roundheads: Here is a chance for Lancaster to have an impact. Select Andy Saull, a proper openside who looks like he may fit in with a slicker gameplan. Ben Morgan is a Lion in the making – all the assumptions were he was waiting for Welsh qualification, but he has done a Barnesy and gone back to the country of his birth. With Tom Wood at 6 and Chris Robshaw on the bench, England would look more dynamic.

Cavaliers: Continuing with the status quo would see Crofty back at 6 and an awkward blindside fit at 7 (Wood or Robshaw). Thomas the Tank Engine would eschew space for contact from number 8, and, without an openside, the backs can forget it.

Fly-half:

For the last 2 years, it has been the Barnesy/Rob Andrew debate again – the flair and flat alignment of Floody versus the defensive rock, but attacking pebble, that is Wilko. Johnno never looked likely to pick anyone but Wilko when squeaky-bum time arrived, and the first post-6N mistake by Floody meant he was out. Flood is now injured and Wilko gone.

Robespierre: Danny Cipriani is called back from Australia with a clean slate and given a chance to show everyone what we have been missing for the last three years. Charlie comes back as an elder statesman and an avowed attacker. George Ford gets to train with the squad.

Louis XVI: Cipriani is ignored, and Owen Farrell is brought in as a 10 – he has decent hands, but a howitzer of a boot which it would be tempting to use at first five – it’s more expansive than Wilko but not much.

Centres:

If anything typified the malaise of England under Johnno, it was the depressing sight of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan as a centre partnership – not a subtle pass between them, and lots of contact. Hape was well out of his depth (even Scotland or Italy would not have picked him) and Banahan is not an international centre – it’s one thing to bosh your way to four tries against Aironi, quite another to do so against BOD, Rougerie or Roberts. Tindall was a rather uninspiring constant in the equation.

Union: Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder and JJ Joseph come into the squad. Farrell plays at 13, outside an expansive 10, where he has more space to work with.

Confederacy: Brad Barritt and Jordan Turner-Hall are new faces, but they are the slightly richer man’s James Downey – not men Ben Foden would relish playing outside. Banahan keeps his place, and the emphasis on bosh continues.

We’ll be back tomorrow to review Lancaster’s squad and deliver our verdict.