It’s not easy to pinpoint England’s problems on the rugby field, because there seem to be plenty of them, but the way every player is so determined to stick to their role description is extremely limiting.
There has been a common theme in every Player Ratings article from the first four rounds of this year’s RBS Six Nations – most players have performed adequately and have done pretty much everything asked of them, but nothing more. Nobody has stepped up as an inspirational leader, as a player that could inject some life into an attack, or make a ferocious hit, and give everyone around them a lift.
Looking at the forwards, other teams have several players that play with more freedom and daring to do something different, but England are irredeemably focused on their narrow gameplan, desperate to stick to the instructions they’ve been given.
The front row has scrummaged reasonably well, but have not contributed anything of note in the loose. Compare that to Gethin Jenkins or ‘The Beast’, who feature prominently whenever they play making huge numbers of tackles and carries.
The second row have been under fire, and rightly so. Some people have lauded their lineout prowess, but at this level, they need to be carrying more forcefully, and making some big hits around the park, rather than trundling from ruck to ruck looking disinterested, knowing that as long as they push in the scrums and jump in the lineouts, their place in the team is secure.
The back row has again been anonymous, working hard at the breakdown but being outshone by Ireland and Scotland, and lacking any real bite. Joe Worsley came in to make lots of tackles – and he made lots of tackles. You can’t argue with that, but where is the drive to go above and beyond, to raise the game, get the crowd on their feet and drag the rest of the side to a higher level of performance?
Watching the Super 14 this season further underlines the shortfall in England. The pace at which the game is played is phenomenal, and it’s often difficult to discern between forwards and backs. All of them have high skill levels, great hands, pace around the park and look comfortable doing the work that isn’t strictly in their remit.
Contrast that with the English forwards who play at a pedestrian pace, looking to slow the game down rather than speed it up and only some of them can catch and pass. It’s the same for the backs – they do hit the odd ruck when required but without the opposition really noticing, and their tackling is generally pretty suspect.
You can’t help but feel that it’s the coaches that enforce this Rugby by Numbers. Some of these players are much more entertaining to watch in club colours, when the shackles of international pressure are released, and they can play a more instinctive style of rugby. England desperately needs to change the way they approach a match, with the emphasis on players adapting to what is in front of them, rather than constantly sticking to a conservative script.
Any designs that Johnno had on lifting the Six Nations trophy are now gone. Things can’t get much worse in terms of performance and their standings in the eyes of supporters and the media, and the chances of them beating France next weekend are ridiculously slim. Now is the time to instruct the players to play.
Bring in Ben Foden, bring in Courtney Lawes, start with Ben Youngs. Tell them to enjoy themselves, and that they don’t need to worry about winning at all costs. Tell them to play with their instincts, to run with the ball at pace and just see what happens. What have they got to lose?