Tuesday, 12 February 2008


Although I'm obviously not privy to what actually goes on in the England changing room at half time, here are a few possible answers to the questions posed in my post below.

I've touched before on the issue of preparation and in particular the fact that there was a full Premiership fixture programme the weekend before the match against Wales, resulting in the squad being unable to train properly together until the Tuesday before the match. Not a problem, perhaps, for a squad entirely familiar with one another's game, but with the retirements of the likes of Corry, Dallaglio, Robinson and Catt, plus injuries to Easter and Worsley and with Lewsey dropped from the squad, there were always going to be problems.

Ashton's solution to such problems was to stick as far as possible to the familiar, but his team selection for the Wales game was no more than an attempt merely to plug the gaps, resulting in England going into the Welsh game with out-of-form players at hooker, tight-head prop, scrum half and, to a degree, fly half (and simply the wrong player at fullback).

A surprisingly bright start against the Welsh then fell away as, under pressure, players began to play to form, not helped of course by further crucial injuries to Strettle, Moody, Rees and Tindall. The sight of Ben Kay playing in the back row was not pretty and is something I'd hope never to see again.

For the Italy game selection was, once again, dictated by circumstances - the injuries in the Welsh match meaning that wholesale changes became a necessity rather than a choice and that several out-of-form players retained their places. Furthermore, bizarre injuries to both Sheridan and Vickery proved that, perhaps, England are indeed the subject of some bad voodoo.

The net result was that England went up against arguably the strongest pack in the competition with untried front row and back row combinations, as well as a hooker who was way short of form, a tighthead more used to 20-minute cameo appearances at this level, a relative rookie at openside, a half-fit number 8, a scrum half with no form at all, a fly half under pressure (which, in fairness, he responded to pretty well), an ordinary outside centre, a rookie winger and a useless fullback.

In the circumstances it's a wonder that England managed to scrape any sort of victory.

Furthermore, Ashton's selection of, and then use of, the bench leaves much to be desired. The tight five were under the cosh in the second half in Rome, and yet only Lee Mears arrived from the English bench, Ben Kay and Jason Hobson twiddling their thumbs while waiting in vain for the opportunity to help shore things up as England failed to respond to Italy's introduction of a brand new and equally tenacious front row. Likewise, with the wheels coming off Gomarsall's game again, it took an age before Wigglesworth was introduced while Mathew Tait's talents were seen only when he was briefly used as a blood replacement. And to throw Danny Cipriani on at fly half for the last 13 minutes when Italy were putting England under all sorts of pressure was just plain dumb.

Which brings me neatly to the big number 10 debate. After the Wales match I was certainly one of those advocating that Cipriani should start at fly half against Italy. Since then, Jonny's first half performance in Rome and Cipriani's error which gifted the Italians their try has led many to claim that Wilkinson is wholly vindicated and Cipriani is simply not ready.
It's just not that simple.
I am a huge admirer of Jonny Wilkinson and have to say that he had fine first half against Italy - his creation of the first try, in particular, was top draw.
However, if we are dealing with facts you have to admit that Wilkinson's form for Newcastle this season has been indifferent, compared to Cipriani who has, for the most part, been sensational for Wasps. Equally you have to admit that Wilkinson was in general very poor against Wales and made some poor decisions in the second half against Italy, aimlessly kicking away what little possession England won.
The problem is that criticism of Wilkinson appears to be regarded by many as some kind of heresy - an attitude which is incredibly unhealthy if England are to move on.
In the end I think Wilkinson probably did enough against Italy to justify his place in the team but who is to say how Cipriani would have fared in that first half? On the front foot, with his array of attacking skills, he may well have torn Italy apart. You certainly can't make a judgement based on the last 13 minutes.
It has to be good news that Wilkinson's position is now under pressure and the fact that there is a debate as to who should play 10 for England has to be healthy. Either Jonny will rise to the challenge and see off the pretender or we'll see an exciting new talent directing the English game. And don't forget Messrs Geraghty, Lamb and even Hodgson are also busy forming an orderly queue to stake their respective claims for the position.

1 comment:

Nursedude said...

Hi Flanker, first, that cartoon is funny as hell. I agree that Cipriani has looked way too good for Wasps this year to not have him on the pitch. Yeah, he made a mistake that lead to an Italian try, but with a new, younger player, growing pains are part of what you have to put up with. Wilkinson sure has not looked that great for Newcastle in the couple of matches I have seen him play this season. The English game owes a huge debt of gratitude to Wilkinson, but sometimes you have to call a spade a spade and just say he is not cutting it-he had a nightmare second half against Wales. The good news for England is that the French pack have not looked that great against scotland, and had were on the back foot the entire second half against the plucky Irish. If I'm an English fan, I would not throw up the white flag yet before playing the French.