Saturday, 7 March 2009

Every Cloud...?

There's been a new sport sweeping the British Isles this week, a sport which is believed to have originated in Australia many years ago but which is now being taken up in huge numbers, mainly by delighted Celts but also increasingly by Englishmen, especially those who "earn" their living as rugby journalists for the nation's red top and broadsheet newspapers.

I am, of course, referring to the sport of England Bashing.

Now, although I have to admit to having indulged a little in this activity myself from time to time, I have to say that the opprobrium that has been heaped on Martin Johnson and the England rugby team since their one point defeat to Ireland last weekend has been nothing short of ridiculous.

Did England play well last weekend? No, not really.
Did the players panic under pressure and give away too many penalties? Undoubtedly.
Does Danny Care deserve a slap? Without question.
Was it the worst England performance in recent times? Not by a long chalk.

According to most commentators, England were abject, lacking ideas, and intent on killing the game. "Incompetent cheats" was how one journo described them and England manager Martin Johnson was widely acknowledged to be out of his depth.

What short memories these people must have. Whilst it was by no means a "good" performance by England, one only has to think back to Argentina at Twickenham in 2006, or Ireland at Croke Park in 2007, or South Africa in the World Cup pool match in France, or Scotland at Murrayfield last year to find games in which England plumbed far deeper depths of ineptitude. Saturday's defeat by Ireland wasn't even on the same page.

Yes, the England players need to stop bleating and start to use an ounce or two of sense at the breakdown to ensure that they are not pinged by referees - it's a problem but not one that is unsolvable. If they do that, if they trust in a defence which has been fairly miserly so far this 6 Nations, then they will at least give themselves a chance in tight games.

The rest of their game isn't in bad order. OK, the performance against Italy at Twickenham last month was nothing to write home about but they still scored 5 tries, then Wales were given the hurry-up in Cardiff with some magnificent defending and a try count of 2-1 in England's favour and I thought that in Dublin there was really only one team looking to put the ball through the hands for most of the game and that team wasn't Ireland.

England are currently a hard team to break down - not a hard team to beat as they give away too many penalties for that - but certainly they are proving hard to score tries against. That's not a bad platform to start from, especially given that they are also creating (although not as yet taking) try scoring opportunities.

I'd even venture that they're not too far away from being a decent team. Not a great team, not by any means, but a decent team who will win more than they lose. Reduce the penalty count by half, keep 15 on the pitch, sort out who is the no. 1 fly half and begin taking those try scoring opportunities and the picture will begin to look very different.

And as for Martin Johnson being out of his depth - jeez- give the man a break. He's been in charge for all of 7 games and while the team haven't set the world alight it was always going to take time and patience for him to make his mark. Remember that he inherited a right old mess - don't be fooled by the World Cup Finalists, Six Nations Runners-up hyperbole - if we're honest we all really know that England have been more or less hopeless since 2003 and turning things round was (is) always going to be a monumental job.

Expectations have been way too high. As Johnson himself has said, "If they are going to call you this superhuman and you believe it then you should also believe it when they call you a tosser."

He's had his problems, inevitably, but I for one am confident that Johnno isn't a million miles away from getting it right.


Nursedude said...

I think being the England National team coach has to be the third toughest job in international rugby, after being the head coach of New Zealand and South Africa. The English press I have seen on line have really been tough on Johnson.

Gomezcat said...

Couldn't agree more. I have to admit to being an armchair fan (only fleetingly played the game at school for a year in games- regret never taking it up, but I'm 37 now and fat!) but have watched it for 20 years or so. I agree that this England side is nowhere near as bad as the press are making out. The defence has improved loads, the forwards produced much quicker ball than they have in a long time and the backs are trying to play.

Great blog, by the way.