Memories are short in sport, reactions are kneejerk and often extreme. Usually rational people find themselves making enormous sweeping statements, heralding imminent domination or doom, often within a few short months of each other.
6 months ago, England were being lauded as genuine World Cup challengers, praised for their expansive style and exuberant approach. This took a knock after they were comprehensively outplayed by Ireland and, after two less than convincing displays against Wales, during the second of which they failed to score a try despite dominating territory, many are questioning every aspect of the England set up.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between. But now that Martin Johnson indicated with the omission of Riki Flutey that he is wedded to a certain style of play, it is time to focus on aspects of England’s game which undoubtedly need improvement if they are to be a factor at the World Cup.
First and foremost, there needs to be more coherence in the way they go about their game plan. England’s ideal approach is fairly simple – be very physical and direct to get over the gainline and then create quick ball and put some width on it with attackers coming from several different angles. It is not far away from the game plan of most teams and the essential element is quick ball.
In order for this to happen, you need a solid set piece which England have. You also need to commit sufficient men to the breakdown to ensure that the ball emerges from the ruck within 2-3 seconds on a plate for the scrum half and it is here where England’s game has begun to stutter. A feature of their two games against Wales was the lack of numbers at the breakdown which meant that too often the nine had to go burrowing for the ball or got scragged by the opposition. The ball which was produced was of absolutely no use to the backs.
Toby Flood was roundly criticised after the game for consistently turning the ball back inside and not setting his backs going. This was harsh because the ball he was receiving was not fit for purpose. That he wanted to pass the ball out was clear early in the game when he tried to force slow ball on a couple of occasions. Often the performance of the fly half is more a symptom of how the team is playing rather than a cause and this was one such instance.
The suggestion almost seemed to be that the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. The team wanted quick ball but were not doing the required things to get it. They were pilloried for not being able to score with so much possession but in truth most of the possession they had was next to useless. This Saturday, England need to commit more men to the breakdown and those men need to blast the defenders out of the way if they are to win any sort of decent attacking ball. Everything stems from there and, given the strength of their set piece. England could become a real force if they sort this out.
The next issue which needs addressing is what is going on outside the fly half once the ball has been won. This article is not designed to exonerate Flood but he was also not helped by the lack of organisation outside him. On one occasion in the first half, England hit up on the left hand side of the field, and then recycled it to the centre of the pitch. Flood then called for the ball to come back to the short side. The ball was semi-quick but the players on that side had had ample time to organise. When Flood received the ball, he had a string of players completely flat outside him and Shontayne Hape was actually in front of him facing the wrong way. None of them was in a position to even identify that they had a considerable overlap, let alone do anything about it. In the Six Nations there were games in which Flood always seemed to have several options but for much of these two warm up matches he has had none.
The key is to identify the opportunities quickly, make a decision and communicate and act on it. This is an area in which England have long lagged behind many of their rivals. When the ball emerges, a top team should already know whether it is the right sort of ball to run, where the space is and what needs to be done to get the ball there. England have looked fairly clueless on all counts.
There is time to remedy these issues but it seems extraordinary that England have reached this point looking so incoherent in many aspects. There are those who believe that spending weeks cooped up together training and over-analysing is detrimental and the performances against Wales will be grist to their mill.
This article is born not out of pessimism but out of frustration because we have seen that England are better than this. Their focus this weekend should be more numbers and greater dynamism around the breakdown area and quicker identification of opportunities out wide. If these are achieved then we could see a very different England team this weekend.
by Stuart Peel
Photo: Onside Images / Patrick Khachfe www.onsideimages.com