As England trailed Scotland on Saturday morning there was initially an inkling that Martin Johnson’s men may pull through the mire of mediocrity to triumph. But by the time Chris Ashton went over in the corner the inkling had paled into little more than a desperate hope.
Yet the wing’s belief clearly contrasted with most.
Speaking afterwards he said: “I don’t think there was ever a point for me, during the game, where I felt we couldn’t get ourselves out of the hole.”
Top professionals will often have this unremitting confidence, in themselves if not their team, but whether Johnson shared his view will be another matter. As they have done in the two previous World Cups, England have now reached the stage where they know they must vastly improve if they are to achieve success in the tournament.
Johnson’s first priority will be to make decisions on personnel. He clearly believed the starting XV for the Scotland game was his strongest, and he will have been worried by some of the performances from men he has entrusted with responsibility. Ben Youngs, otherwise a rare shining light in this competition, was surprisingly inaccurate. He failed to provide the control that England badly needed while his service was slow and wayward.
Half-back partner Jonny Wilkinson failed to shine too. A heroic defensive performance was marred by erratic place kicking and poor decision making. Though his injury may necessitate the inclusion of Toby Flood anyway, the Leicester fly half will have quietly hoped that a combination of Wilkinson’s performance and his own late cameo justified selection.
Matt Stevens fared little better in the front row where Euan Murray showed just what the Scots missed in the Argentina match. Replacement Alex Corbisiero brought a marked improvement, as did second row Tom Palmer who also came to the field late on. Palmer greatly improves England’s line-out which, should Deacon and Lawes be on the field, looks decidedly limited.
Should Flood deputise for the injured Wilkinson then, despite his familiarity with Youngs, I would advocate selecting Richard Wigglesworth at scrum half. The Saracens nine had an immediate impact when arriving on the pitch, and it was his quick link-up play with Flood that put Ashton away for his try.
Youngs’ game naturally lends itself to playing Flood outside, as opposed to the deeper-lying Wilkinson, but Wigglesworth provides the leadership and control that Youngs’ game is lacking at the moment. England are built around strength at the set piece so I would also move Corbisierio and Palmer into the side, in place of Stevens and Courtney Lawes, to shore up the scrum and line-out respectively.
Armitage’s ban is unfortunate and will mean there is one change in a back-line that I would have otherwise restored. Mike Tindall disappointed again but, if Wilkinson is indeed out of the match, the selection of either Hape (remember him?) or Banahan is a step backwards.
As it stands the French could quite feasibly end this debate and mastermind their own downfall on Saturday. The relationship with coach Marc Lievremont seemingly having plummeted to new depths at the weekend. Though England cannot rely on this and must improve upon their recent performances if they are to progress.
by Tom James