Saturday saw the first stutter of Martin Johnson’s reign as England coach. It was in truth a pretty unconvincing display from the men in white – the basics were poor, the decision-making worse at times and the team lost direction badly in the second half, seemingly with little idea what to do against a sturdy, pragmatic Australia.
Leadership wasn’t a problem in those days
However, there were positive glimpses which suggest that, if some players can be a little more discerning in deciding when to display their youthful verve and enthusiasm, we could be on to something. The positives were generally mitigated by negatives, but they are negatives which can be ironed out with the improved decision-making which comes with experience. We tried to play some rugby, but we did it in between the 10 metre lines; we tried to keep the ball alive, but ended up throwing 50:50 passes; we tried to compete at the breakdown, but crossed the line into infringement all too often, especially in kickable areas. Right intentions, wrong time and place.
Talent is one thing – there are many, many teams in the world who are much of a muchness in that department. Flashy back moves, the intention to chuck the ball around, to have 40 different lineout moves are all great. But knowing when to use them, or perhaps more importantly when not to, is key and it is this which is the harder skill to acquire. When you are on the pitch in the heat of the moment, what is the correct call to make? That is when your ice-cool on-the-field decision-makers come to the fore, when you find out which players can cut through all the distractions and come up with the right call.
At present, this is what England lacks in spades. The quality that marks out the good from the average and the great from the good is the ability to figure out how to win a game come-what-may. England’s 2003 World Cup side was a magnificent team but where they really stood out from their rivals was in their ability to win. Whatever needed to be done, the leaders on the pitch, of which they had plenty, knew what it was and how to do it.
Australia, the kings at getting the best from their resources, have always been excellent at this. The 2003 semi-final against New Zealand was a classic case where they decided exactly what sort of game they needed to drag the Kiwis into in order to win it, and carried it out ruthlessly. In club rugby, Munster have been outstanding winners. In their tough Heineken Cup group last year, they got precisely what they required out of every game; 2 away bonus points at Wasps and Clermont Auvergne, and none conceded at home. Their rivals took their eyes of the ball at key moments, dropped or conceded key bonus points, and were knocked out by a team who, on talent alone, should have been long gone. Munster went on to lift the trophy.
On Saturday the difference in the level of nous of the 2 teams was marked. At a time when there appears to be more kicking than ever, Australia kicked with purpose playing their rugby in areas where they could hurt England. England laboured in unthreatening positions and when the movement had slowly ground to a halt, they hoofed it.
My enduring image of the game from my vantage point in the rafters of the north end of the West Stand, was of raking low kicks from Giteau into space bobbling towards to corner flag below me. A good chase forced the retreating England player to play it and Australia were on the front foot. Some of Cipriani’s efforts by contrast looked like he had kicked a hot water bottle while wearing a pair of slippers. Australia kicked with purpose from positions of strength to gain an advantage; England kicked from positions of weakness when they had run out of ideas.
England’s kicking from hand has been substandard for far too long and, given it’s importance in the modern game, some serious attention needs to be paid to it for England not to fall further behind. South Africa won the World Cup through their lineout and their kicking game and Australia exposed England in both these areas once again on Saturday.
Defence was another area where Australia’s greater appreciation of what needed to be done stood out. As England played laboured, ‘one-out’ rugby, the Aussies appreciated that they did not need to try too hard to turn the ball over and backed their tacklers to keep the opposition at bay realising that the concession of a penalty was the only real threat to them. This generally led to a mistake or an aimless kick from the attack. An understanding of what was needed enabled George Smith to fight his natural instincts which would see him try to turn over every ball within 5 yards of him.
England by contrast just couldn’t quite resist sticking a big paw over the top and trying to claw the ball back. The result was that Australia kicked 7 penalties from 8 attempts, England 2 from 3. The difference was in the appreciation of what needed to be done at a given moment.
It is the development of these key decision makers which will drive England forward in the coming months. I am still dubious about the captain; I am not convinced that he is worth his place in the side and have not seen too much evidence of his much-vaunted leadership qualities. Some of the young guys, Rees, Cipriani, Care, Haskell, Sheridan, need to step forward to fill this void.
But I would not be too pessimistic about England. The all-or-nothing nature of the English sports follower means that the doom-mongers have been dusting off their vitriol again but this is unwarranted. We have talent by the lorryload and with time, and empowerment from the management team, we will start to see the correct calls being made at key times. Then the results will start to come.
By Stuart Peel