Frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it. I thought I had been transported back 20 years and was watching an England batting collapse in the face of a fearsome West Indian bowling attack. That was the last time I saw an England team fold in quite such a manner. But this time, there was no fearsome opposition, there was no irresistible force blowing England’s house down. England set fire to their own castle and all Wales had to do was be on hand to loot the place and urinate on the ashes.
Even more extraordinarily, this debacle came after one of the more impressive 40 minute spells England have enjoyed for some time. They had shape, penetration, a discernible pattern and greater physicality than they had shown at the World Cup. They dominated all areas of the game. They were a markedly better team than Wales for 40 minutes and I believe would have beaten them at Twickenham on 8 occasions out of 10. Their only main failing was that they were not clinical in opening up an unassailable lead but this is not a new failing for England. It is for this reason that I do not believe a kneejerk reaction is necessary. There was progress and Ashton is on the right lines in this respect.
What was shocking was the abject lack of leadership shown on the pitch. Nobody took charge, nobody called the team round and outlined how to turn things round, to keep it tight for 5 minutes and take the sting out of the game. This was staggering given the experience on the pitch. At one stage, shortly after half the team had shovelled the ball backwards 60 yards, there was a minute’s stoppage before a Welsh 5 yard scrum. The entire England team stood staring at the floor.
Ashton must have been looking on in disbelief. He was surely justified in believing that someone in his band of elite professional rugby players would have the gumption to say a few well-chosen, strong but calming words. I would therefore not blame him for what happened. Many have criticised the selection of Balshaw and, while I don’t agree with it myself, there is no doubt that he is a fantastic talent if only he could get his head straight and cut out the lapses in concentration. He has thrived under Ashton before and the coach backed himself to bring out the best in him. I suspect he will stick with him but the clock must be ticking on this player now after Saturday’s howler.
Where Ashton himself was culpable was in taking off his captain just as the wheels were coming off. Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men must be torn up and this was one such example. Matt Stevens is an excellent player and the plan was always to unleash him for half an hour but at that moment, England needed their leader in a side recently shorn of so many.
The nagging question though is ‘would this have happened under Woodward?’ and the answer is no. Woodward strove to create a peerless environment in which elite athletes could thrive. His doctrine was that everyone do everything one per cent better in all aspects of the game and in life when they were in the England camp. This climate of excellence has slipped in the past 4 years. It was in this environment that leaders stepped forward and outstanding individuals such as Martin Johnson came to the fore. Their standards were so high in all things that nobody was allowed to slip from those levels and get away with it. The individual would be dragged back up to the requisite standard rather than bringing others down with him.
So the players must carry the can for what happened on the field but the coaches must be asking themselves what they can do differently to ensure that such a debacle never happens again. The main asset which the England team under Woodward had was the ability to win. Winning is a skill in and of itself and a team needs a strategy in how to close out a game without mishap. Much of this stems from the everyday environment in which the team finds itself. It took Woodward some years to achieve this but the current England set up need to find the right formula as a matter of urgency. With the resources we have at our disposal, the English public will not tolerate mediocre performances and results for too much longer.