Sunday, 9 October 2011

Twenty Four Hours Later

And so to the inquest... 

I’ve seen much written about England’s defeat to France yesterday, much of it very negative. The common sentiment is that England have had a dreadful World Cup, that the team is uninspired and one-dimensional and that this is mostly because it is made in the image of its head coach, Martin Johnson.

I'm afraid I don't buy that argument. England simply weren't as bad in this World Cup as everyone likes to make out - you only have to look at how Argentina troubled the All Blacks today to put England's performance against them in context, for instance. So England aren't as good as the All Blacks. Who knew?

No, the frustrating thing for me was not that England were poor but that they could and should have been so much better. The irony of ironies is that, for me, yesterday was actually England’s best performance of the Rugby World Cup. The ambition was there and in patches there was a good attacking shape and the odd flash of excellence. That these moments were few and far between and more often than not came to nothing owing to a lack of precision was England’s undoing. That and the fact that the personnel selected were incapable of delivering the gameplan.

With the gift of hindsight, the writing was on the wall back in the summer when Johnno restored Jonny to the starting line up at the expense of Toby Flood. Yes, the same Toby Flood who (the Ireland match aside) had deftly steered England to a 6 Nations Championship earlier this year. The thinking seemed to be that World Cups are different and are won by big packs and a metronomic goalkicker. Thus the progress made since the win in Sydney in June 2010 was jettisoned for a more prosaic  approach, an approach that falls down immediately if your forwards are outplayed and your kicker ceases to be metronomic, as proved to be the case.
And that’s the sad thing for me. After struggling to find his feet as a coach, Johnson appeared to be getting things mostly right through last autumn and the 6 Nations. There was an issue with the balance of the backrow and a conundrum in midfield, but neither was unsurmountable. The discovery of Manu Tuilagi really should have solved the midfield problem and, although England lacked a true international standard fetcher, the emergence and progress of Tom Wood during the 6 Nations should have signalled the way ahead.

The great shame is that Johnson appeared not to trust the evidence of his own eyes and turned back to what was familiar, leading to some very muddled thinking and some very questionable decisions. Restoring Wilkinson to the 10 shirt, selecting an unfit Lewis Moody ahead of Tom Wood, picking Matt Stevens out of position when Andrew Sheridan was injured rather than trusting in Alex Corbisiero, thinking that Mike Tindall could ever be an international 12, not calling up Riki Flutey when the opportunity arose, adding Thomas Waldrom to the squad after Nick Easter had recovered from injury, recalling Easter at the expense of James Haskell, preferring Steve Thompson to the previous first choice Dylan Hartley, relying on the prosaic talents of Louis Deacon ahead of far more dynamic locks in the squad - when you add that lot up it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why England's challenge came up short.
The real disappointment is that England were, for the majority of the last 12 months, on the right road. For some reason known only to the management team, however, they appeared to lose faith in the direction they were heading and turned off that particular road. The performances of the team were no way near as bad as made out by sections of the media – but it is true to say that the team did not come anywhere near to achieving its potential, and that is the saddest indictment of England’s World Cup campaign.


Nursedude said...

England won their group. I don't think they were as bad as the Kiwi press would lead you to believe-France played their best match of the tournament against watch them fall like a soufflée against Wales in the Semifinals. I still think MJ should keep his job.

BoneOnBone said...

apparently when Tuilagi jumped overboard Nick Easter grabbed the life vest and knocked it on, Johnny Wilkinson threw it 10 yards behind Manu, Chris Ashton ironically wouldn't dive in. Matt Stevens was to stoned and Tindall was to "busy" to help

Gruney said...

For once I find myself agreeing with your views. When you look at the players 1-15 you could never really say we had the same level of talent as France let alone New Zealand and so we got to roughly where we deserved. Johnson is finding his feet as a coach. He brings intensity and a winners mentality and should be given more time. But he did make some pretty big mistakes most notably given the influence of openside flankers in the international game, to bring only one half-fit specialist 7, seemed very odd at the start, but in hindsight looks suicidal given the massive influence of players like Pocock and Warburton on the fate of their teams. I know we don't have huge riches in this area but why would he not bring one back-up ie Fourie? And some of the substitutions are inexplicable - bringing on Lawes at 6 when Haskell was bursting to make an impact, substituting a forward when we had a scrum on the 5m line...

Anyway I don't think there is much we can learn from football but the futility of demonising the coach and players when they didn't quite live up to our overblown expectations is surely one of them.

Total Flanker said...

Whaddaya mean, "For once"?