After another insipid performance against Ireland, there has been a real desire to find out precisely what is at the root of England’s malaise. This week is likely to see another uninspiring selection, and Stuart Peel wonders whether the coaches are doing a good enough job.
John Wells could soon be in the firing line
England just seems incapable of taking that big stride forward and intersperse promising passages which, if you squint and blur your eyes, could be recognised as decent rugby, with phases which make you want to scratch your eyes out completely or at the very least bury your head in the nether regions of the sofa.
The fundamental issue is that the players seem to lack trust in what they are doing and for this the coaches must take responsibility. The players either do not have a game plan, are uncomfortable with what they are trying to do, do not believe in it or are fearful that they will be vilified for a wrong decision. The upshot is that no decisions are made with any conviction or no decisions are made at all. The fault here must lie with the people who are preparing the players because they are essentially good players who look utterly confused.
Much of the focus in the past week has been upon the abject lack of discipline. Leaving aside Danny Care’s attack of little-man syndrome, England have been serial offenders at the breakdown, coming in the wrong side, going off their feet or, most often, handling in the ruck. That they feel the need to do this suggests that they see this as the only way to prevent the opposition from scoring. They are not just having a go at the ball and then leaving it, content with having bought their defensive line a valuable 2 seconds to organise themselves. They are going further than that and the only explanation for this is that they do not trust their defence.
By extension, because they are all players who can tackle, this must mean that they do not trust their defensive system. Confident sides are prepared to say to the opposition ‘go on, have the ball, do your worst’, backing themselves to repel any attack and eventually turn the ball over. Not so England.
Things are little better in attack. When Mathew Tait burst through the defence from an inside pass, I nearly had a heart attack. Put aside the fact for now that he butchered an overlap from which Riki Flutey could have walked backwards under the posts to score if he had so chosen. England had run a move, an actual move. We haven’t seen a move from England for what seems like an eternity. Which begged the question, why?
They ran that move with Tait late in the game. Why not run it with Sackey early in the game and sew doubts among the defence because you have shown an ability to attack from several angles? The players are capable of carrying them out, so why are they not? Again the only explanations are either a lack of trust in the moves or that they have been told not to do them.
Things are even worse once England get beyond second phase. Any team worth their salt have patterns which they run here, a method for breaking down the defence, winning good ball and ensuring that the right men get the ball in the right areas at the right time. If England have such patterns then they are doing a very good job at disguising them. The fact that the players are not running them or do not carry them out with any conviction suggests that, once again, they do not trust them or that the message is not getting through from the coaching team.
At the start of the season, there was evidence that England were prepared to counter attack, to keep an eye on where the space is and look to utilise it. Often the execution was poor but the intentions were commendable. There is none of that now. It is either one-dimensional and half-hearted with ball in hand or aimless, brainless kicking. Why? Something has obviously changed and it must be the messages which are being sent to the players and the lack of conviction suggests they do not believe in those messages. Are they so programmed that they are trying to do what they have been told when, given what is unfolding in front of them, they think should be doing something completely different but are afraid that if they do they will be castigated for ‘coming off the plan’?
Clearly this is all just speculation but given that the coaches appear just as bemused and clueless as to what is going on as everyone else, there’s no crime in that. There is no joy in the way England play the game. The players look tortured, muddled and flat and this transmits itself to the supporters. It is just not a very uplifting experience to watch England at present and has not been for too long. Neutrals just wouldn’t bother and England supporters end up exasperated and in a foul mood for the rest of the day. The rest of the rugby world is looking on with a mixture of amusement, confusion and disbelief as they, like us, try to figure out quite what it is England are trying to do. It is rugby (apparently), but not as we know it or would wish to know it.
The performances of the players have palpably been not good enough and they need to take more personal responsibility for their actions. But let’s take it back to first causes. The job of a coaching team is threefold. They must produce a strategy; convey the key messages to the team in a clear and concise manner to which they will respond positively; and establish a squad mentality and environment which brings out the best in the players. The current England coaching team is failing on at least one, perhaps two and very possibly all three of these counts. And as long as they continue to do that then no matter who England put on the pitch, it will be a while before things improve.
by Stuart Peel