Watching a seemingly clueless England labour to victory over an Italian side intent on committing suicide was not an enjoyable experience on Saturday. And the performances of their so-called rivals in the Six Nations put into even sharper relief just how poor and unimaginative England were. They may as well have been playing a different sport to Wales, Ireland and France.
We have been here before. The 2007 Six Nations, the World Cup, the 2008 Six Nations and the autumn internationals all had England supporters asking exactly the same questions and coming up with fewer and fewer answers. We have been disillusioned with England’s performances for a long time now but disillusionment, disappointment and even anger has given way to a tired resignation, an acceptance that the team is just not very good and that there is as little light at the end of the tunnel as ever.
The crowd were quiet at Twickenham. Usually when England are playing badly the crowd express their displeasure and then try to lift the team. On Saturday there was none of that, only resignation because it was the sort of performance we have come to expect. That silence was a louder condemnation of England’s recent failures than anything even the most lyrical critic could produce.
Occasionally through these dark days there has been a glimmer but it is almost 12 months now since the performance against Ireland brought a degree of hope. Since then it has been darkness all the way and you will no longer hear the notes of hope and optimism which usually features in conversations between England rugby supporters.
I can’t think of any team in the world who play rugby like England. Everything they do is paralysed by fear. There is no pace, no conviction and no intensity. The players look like they’re trying to figure out what the coaches would want them to do in any given situation rather than playing what’s in front of them. Whether this is the case or not, it cannot be denied that individuals who play with freedom and exuberance in club colours suddenly become rabbits in the headlights when they pull on the white jersey, shackled by some invisible force which sucks the life out of them.
Wales, Ireland and France played with conviction and confidence, backing whatever decision they made 100% and carrying through with it. Every time England players make a decision they do so with hesitancy, they don’t look like they fully believe in what they are doing and you just can’t play international sport like that.
England do not have players of the class of 5 years ago but they are a damned sight better than they have shown in recent times in international rugby. They show it week in, week out with their clubs. It used to be the case that pulling on the international jersey would elevate players to new heights, bring the best out of them and make them play above themselves. For too long, the opposite has been the case with England and the most urgent question facing the management team is, why? So far, they have drawn a blank.
It was a joy watching the other 3 teams play at the weekend. They were imaginative, physical, skilful and quick. Could any of these adjectives, all so central to any successful modern rugby team, honestly be applied to anything England did on Saturday? Only through the use of vivid imagination or a willing departure from reality. It is a mystery what England are trying to achieve with the way they play. Wales, Ireland and France played a simple game. There was nothing in the way of rocket science about it but England made it look so complicated that you almost felt sorry for them, such was the emotion and brainpower they seemed to be expending when carrying out even the most basic of tasks.
So what is the answer? Well, who knows? The same suggestions are raised time after time and they all seem so obvious. Play flat, clear the breakdown with power, win the contact, run straight, utilise space with your quick men, have the right players in the right areas, attack with pace, kick with direction and purpose. All basic, all achieved by most rugby teams worth their salt, all seemingly beyond the best England have to offer.
The players should be told at the weekend to just go out and play – who knows what might happen then. It’s not like they have anything to lose and it wouldn’t be a tactical u-turn because at the moment they don’t have any discernible tactics. The players look cowed, shackled, bewildered and lost. But they are all good players, some are very good. They should be encouraged to make decisions, given the confidence to try things and assured that they will not be criticised for the decisions they take as long as they actually make them and carry them through without dithering.
The job of the England management this week should be confidence-building, making the players believe they deserve to be there, that this is their team, that they are not building for some intangible point in the future, their time is now and they need to start playing.
By Stuart Peel