“Well it started badly, it tailed off a little in the middle, and the less said about the end the better, but apart from that, excellent”. Thus spoke Captain Edmund Blackadder in response to Baldrick’s rather pathetic attempt at war poetry. The words could just as easily be applied to England’s efforts against Scotland, although in fact they contrived to show even less wit and invention than Baldrick.
I would probably have rather have spent an evening in the company of Baldrick than in the North stand of a sodden Murrayfield on Saturday. Watching England produce one of the most insipid performances I have ever seen on a rugby pitch was one thing. Having to endure it sitting next to an Aussie who was supporting Scotland was quite another. He may have bought me a beer at half time, but I am not sure I will ever forgive Brian Ashton and his boys for putting me through that.
A few of us tried to raise our spirits by striking up a chorus of Swing Low at half time as it was clear by that point that this may be the only time we got to do it. And it was almost certain that the 10 minutes England spent absent from the pitch could not possibly have been less productive and entertaining than the 80 minutes they spent on it.
The step backwards England took on Saturday was staggering. It was a truly awful game all round but one team came with a plan, however limited, and carried it out. There was little evidence of England having any sort of plan whatsoever, and if they had one they mislaid it somewhere on the M1 on the trip up.
Each of the previous 3 games had shown a degree of progress. Before the shocking mental collapse against Wales, England had played some of their best rugby for some time. Against Italy, while largely poor, they still strung together some encouraging passages, although the mental flaws were still very much in evidence in a decidedly shaky second half. Against France, it seemed the mental weaknesses had been eliminated and further progress was in evidence as England rediscovered their core values of power and physicality.
In a world of kneejerk reaction, where media and public search hungrily for the sensational headline, we have a tendency to lose patience too quickly and don’t let coaches establish their own structures and develop their team. That England were making progress, albeit painfully slow progress, was sufficient grounds for a degree of cautious optimism.
Those flickering flames of hope were extinguished in the rain, wind and hail of Edinburgh. The period of advance is over and England have regressed to the state they were in after the 36-0 loss to South Africa in the World Cup. They showed no bite, no invention, little physicality and no hope. They kicked incessantly and poorly, were driven back around the fringes, were lumbering and one-paced and showed no appetite to alter their approach and try to change the course of the game. All the best teams have the ability to switch to a plan B in reaction to how the game is unfolding. At no stage did England look remotely capable of doing this.
Ireland should now be treated as a one-off game. England have gone nowhere in this championship and no result against Ireland can change that. They must pick a big, mobile pack built around the exuberant aggression of Sheridan, Stevens and Haskell and must introduce some of the exciting young backs whom Ashton has seemed so reluctant to trust thus far. The current crop have had their chance and failed. There must be no more hesitation before he unleashes Cipriani, Simpson-Daniel and Tait to play a quick game with quick ball, or at least show the ambition to do so. If they do well then at least something positive will have come out of the tournament.
What of Scotland? I asked the chaps behind me if they did not feel a little disappointed and cheated by the fact that Scotland have produced 3 such heartless performances when they are capable of playing with such impressive physical presence and power. Clearly 30 seconds after they had just beaten the old enemy was not quite the right time to ask this and they looked at me as though they had just trodden in me. The point stands though, and Frank Hadden must strive to find out how he can harness that passion more regularly and not just when the English hordes hove into view. It will be disastrous if they lose to Italy but still regard the championship as a success just because they defeated England.
There is no doubt that the sight of the red rose does something to the likes of Scotland and Wales but that is no excuse for England. They should be used to it by now and should deal with it. But the non-performance they produced on Saturday beggared belief. Any advance has been shattered by the knowledge that on any given day the team can play as badly as that. Many of the current team will be haunted by that and fresh blood must be brought into the side to inject some life into proceedings before they too are infected beyond repair by the atmosphere of failure.
by Stuart Peel