A friend of mine said to me after the Australia v England game at the weekend, “Why do England make Rugby look like a difficult game to play?”
Everything England tried on Saturday seemed to be laboured, pre-meditated and slow, whereas everything Australia did was executed at much greater pace, with more improvisation and direction. It’s no coincidence that the home side crossed the whitewash three times, whilst England couldn’t breach the defence once.
The score was closer than it should have been thanks to England’s dominance – and Australia’s inadequacy – at the scrum, but set piece aside, the gulf in class between the two teams wasn’t lost on anybody.
It has to come back to the coaches and what they are instructing a talented group of players to do. At times it seems as if their natural rugby instincts are grappling with the memory of whatever John Wells and Mike Ford have been writing on the flipchart.
Never has this been more apparent than when Ben Foden, England’s most potent attacking back, called for a mark after taking a high ball with nobody anywhere near him. If he was wearing the green jersey of Northampton, he would have set off in search of space, but something told him he had to take the safe option in the white jersey of England. He then kicked it terribly for a 10-yard gain…
England spent a significant amount of the second half within ten metres of Australia’s tryline, but yet could not cross it. The defence was indeed formidable, but when Plan A clearly wasn’t working there was no Plan B, so the preferred option was to toil away with forward after forward driving from a static start and getting nowhere.
They are called the Hard Yards for a reason, and surely the simpler option would be to spin it wide and let the backs have a go. But that’s the riskier option, and someone has obviously told them to keep it tight and play it safe.
Unfortunately, it makes for abysmal rugby. If England had won, Martin Johnson might have trotted out the old favourite that the result is more important than the performance, but as it turned out, we got neither. England played it safe again, trying to bash down the door via Route One, when playing with pace and width might have been the better option.
Australia were heavily beaten in the scrum, but they still won the game by playing more instinctively, keeping the ball alive and looking up at the options available. The Southern Hemisphere teams have been doing this for years, and to some extent, so have Wales, Ireland and France, but England still don’t seem to learn.
In England, rugby seems to be the hardest, most technical of sports – please just throw it about a little, trust in your ability and enjoy yourselves again. It might just work, and at the very least, it would be significantly more enjoyable to watch.