By Rob Douglas
Does anybody outside of the England camp (or even within it) truly believe the boys in white can slay the Boks this Friday? The bookies and the international press certainly don’t rate their chances. Patriotic fans such as this one will protest their optimism but I wonder if Brian Ashton and his staff deep down have targeted the Samoa game as the crunch match of the pool and hope to build up a head of steam to take into the knockouts, relying on a bit of momentum to turn the screw on the Aussies in the quarter-finals? Hardly the stuff of World Champions…
It is no secret how the South Africans play their rugby, and subsequently how to go about stopping them. Expect a full frontal assault spearheaded by a massive pack of forwards, short on subtlety but monstrous in terms of physicality. Eddie Jones has made strides towards injecting some craft and guile into their back play and giving their wide men, especially the cheetah-racing Bryan Habana, more to do than just run in interceptions, but they will always fall back on the route one approach which they know so well. The question is can the English eight match, compete and outplay a set of rampaging forwards reared on red meat and thin High Veld air, men like Schalk Burger, Os Du Randt, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha? These are the kind of fearless, bristling combatants who would take on a herd of Wildebeest if they were asked (and for all I know probably did during their training camp – beats naked command tasks!).
New Zealand highlighted South Africa’s shortcomings in Durban earlier this year, in a victory which was based on denying them forward superiority and cutting off their supply of ball mixed with an injection of pace from the bench in the last quarter of the match. Argentina gave the world a lesson in aggression at the breakdown in the tournament’s opening game, displaying the most ferocious and high tempo but disciplined defence I have seen for some time. But England are manifestly neither of these teams, and achieving parity up front whilst also not gifting points through loose play out wide may well be beyond them.
England’s team selection earlier today has raised a number of questions, particularly as to what style of play they will adopt. Joe Worsley’s hard-hitting power in defence and all of Lawrence Dallaglio’s abrasiveness and experience don’t even warrant a place on the bench having been dropped in favour of lineout and scrummaging expertise. For me, this is further evidence of Ashton’s selection mistakes and coaching inadequacies.
There is a long line of former-professionals and journalists queueing up to sing the England Head Coach’s praises, all of whom seem to have some divine knowledge of the inner working’s of his mind. They sympathise entirely with a man who is alleged to have sacrificed his attacking flair and gift for expansive rugby in favour of the pragmatic approach, all the while pointing to the poisoned inheritance he received from Andy Robinson. There is remarkably little criticism directed Ashton’s way when one considers his, albeit short-lived, record.
Yet, the latest shambolic and rudderless performance against the United States saw England at their very worst, unimaginative and bereft of ideas – and this against an opposition half full of amateurs. It is the coach’s sole responsibility to define a game plan, then to select and train the players to implement it. Granted you can only work with what you have available, but if England had a game plan last Saturday it was not visible to most, and the players on the pitch certainly did not have the ability to follow or adapt it on the pitch.
Olly Barkley’s training ground injury magnifies the folly in not selecting greater cover at fly-half, bringing the wisdom of Toby Flood’s exclusion into doubt. Furthermore, Nick Easter’s inclusion in the starting XV demonstrates more selectorial confusion, as he was cruelly exposed on more than one occasion in South Africa over the summer. Surely, James Haskell’s dynamism and youthful energy would have troubled Jake White’s analysts more? Ashton may have worked wonders at Bath, and I doubt so many of rugby’s respected commentators can have completely misread his abilities, but I see very little to commend his vision of ‘open-ended rugby’ in this England team, and let’s not forget his stint at the head of the Irish set-up was hardly a happy one. No-one can doubt Ashton’s honesty or integrity but it is far from certain that he has the credentials to cut it on the international stage.
Clive Woodward asked that he be judged on the world cup, and in that respect was fortunate to be given a chance to redeem himself after the failure in 1999. Ashton may not be so self-righteously vocal but the same measure will apply, whether he likes it or not. England’s campaign will not stand or fall on the outcome of Friday’s match, but it will be a definite indicator as to what this team and Ashton are capable of in this particular tournament. Don’t hold your breath.