I had the pleasure last night of attending an evening with Lawrence Dallaglio, Jeremy Guscott, Stuart Barnes and Stephen Jones (the journalist, not the rugby player) courtesy of The Times. Hosted by Jill Douglas, there was plenty of lively debate and it was interesting to hear these guys being a little bit faster and looser with their opinions than they are normally on TV or in print. Guscott particularly did not mess about, when he eventually turned up.
Some of the topics discussed have been hotly debated on The Rugby Blog in recent weeks and months. Here are some highlights of what they had to say:
The panel agreed that Martin Johnson is now finding his feet but there was huge frustration that it had taken him so long to get there. Jones observed that New Zealand coaches get 1, maybe 2 games as a honeymoon period. Johnson has had 22 games and progress has been painfully slow. It is only now that he has grown into the job and developed confidence in himself as a manager that progress is being made. There was huge admiration for him as a man but Dallaglio repeated his opinion that the players would have been intimidated early on – how do you tell an 80-cap World Cup winning captain that you disagree with him?
There was consensus that he made a mistake in staying loyal to so many mediocre players for so long. Barnes contended that the likes of Ashton, Foden and Youngs should all have 5 or 6 more valuable caps by now and Jones hoped that Johnson shows the same loyalty to them that he did to the likes of Steve Borthwick and co in the past. Johnson’s loyalty, so often a strength, has been a weakness because he has placed it in the wrong people.
The England coaches
Near the top of that list of ‘wrong people’ are the England coaches. Guscott described John Wells as ‘a mute’ who spent most of his mediocre career ‘just giving away penalties’. He said of Mike Ford, ‘I don’t know what his credentials are but he would just be told to be quiet’ if Jerry was still around. They also tried to diffuse the myth that Brian Smith was a pioneer of open free-flowing rugby by pointing out that, contrary to popular belief, London Irish kicked more when he was in charge than any other team.
There were very few matters on which all 4 luminaries agreed but one was that Johnson’s coaching team are very lucky to still be in their jobs.
Poor old Borthers took one hell of a shoeing. Dallaglio remarked that the two things you would have thought Johnson would have been able to do is pick the right captain and the right second row. A second row, he said, needs to look as though he has eaten his own children. The likes of Bakkies Botha and Martin Johnson have that, Borthwick doesn’t. Guscott just spluttered into his beer when asked about poor old Steve.
The England midfield
A hot topic on the Blog in recent weeks. Barnes feels that Mike Tindall needs to be replaced sooner rather than later as for all his defensive organisation, he no longer offers enough of a threat in attack. In terms of a replacement however, he and Guscott both contended that there is no out and out 13 in the country good enough to play international rugby so they would have to create one. Guscott called for that man to be Delon Armitage, pointing out that Australia have a 10 at 12, a winger at 13, a 10 at 15 and a 15 on the wing and that sometimes you just have to be resourceful.
A question was then asked regarding why Olly Barkley is not involved. Guscott stated that, while an excellent player at Premiership level where he makes breaks, he does not have the physical ability at international level. His brain will be taking him through the gap but his body will not take him there. His tackling is ok, his kicking is decent but overall he is not quite a good enough package to succeed. Barnes added that England’s game no longer suits him. They play a physical direct game while Barkley likes to sit deeper and take time on the ball before making a decision. With the emphasis increasingly on keeping the ball in hand, you do not necessarily need a kicking 12.
When someone asked about Cipriani, Dallaglio, his erstwhile captain at Wasps, fixed the questioner with a petrifying stare and said, ‘What? We’re still talking about Danny Cipriani are we?’ To paraphrase, he said that for all his talent, in a team game if a player is not prepared to put the team first and buy into the team ethos he is not going to get anywhere. He added that, after turning up late for his first session at Melbourne Rebels, ‘the man…sorry, the boy needs to sort his life out’. It’s fair to say he gave that question short shrift.
Jones lamented that he finds it sad that rugby struggles so badly to accommodate mavericks like Cipriani, Henson and Hook and that the stuffiness has to go. Barnes however said that he has spoken to lots of guys who you would class as maverick and that many of them had also turned their back on Cipriani as a borderline lost cause.
The All Blacks
Guscott almost got poetic (or as close as he could given that all evidence suggested he was several beers to the good by this stage) on the topic of the All Blacks. He loves their intensity, their ambition, their skill level and their ability to sustain such high standards the whole time. He said he spent his whole career trying to teach forwards to catch and pass and that finally he has seen a side where the forwards can handle like backs.
Jones, inevitably, branded them a bunch of arrogant, overrated cheats and agreed with Dallaglio’s contention that they are beatable up front and if you do that you can defeat them. Barnes agreed that the key is to dictate the tempo of the game. If you can slow the game down, keep hold of the ball and drag them into a war of attrition, their lethal backs will not get the right ball.
Dallaglio also added that between World Cups, the All Blacks preen and pose and, by fair means or foul, get the best of the decisions on the pitch from referees and off it as seen in the handling of Keven Mealamu’s headbutt which the whole panel branded a disgrace and a farce. Come the World Cup the only thing referees are influenced by is their desire to ref the final. They therefore favour the All Blacks less and the All Blacks can’t handle it. He concluded however that if Dan Carter is fit, New Zealand will take some stopping. If he is not, he thinks their chances reduce considerably. He is that important.
All very interesting stuff and plenty of food for thought. We would be interested to see what you have to say on some or all of the above.
By Stuart Peel