No need for kneejerk reaction, but leadership urgently needed

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.

5 thoughts on “No need for kneejerk reaction, but leadership urgently needed

  1. Balshaw has been picked again! It’s one thing sticking with a player you know will come good in time but surely that player right now would be Mathew Tait!! Tait has the capabilities to be a world class full-back, Balshaw no longer has.

  2. Question: with both Tait & Cipriani on the bench (which is brilliant), say Balshaw drops 10 high balls in the 1st half (which he will judging by last weekend’s defensive performance under the Gary Owen), who is Ashton’s choice of replacement full-back; Cipriani or Tait??

  3. Good point – I assume he’d go with Tait but then the only way to give Cipriani game time is to take off Wilko. However it’s actually a more balanced bench than last week where we had nobody to cover centre and ended up with 3 fly halves at 10, 12 and 13.

    I’m more upset about Noon than anything else – he’s solid and works hard but he’s done little to show that he’s much more than a good club player.

    Interested to see what Lipman can do. The loss of Sheridan is massive.

  4. I have to say that although Ashton won’t have been pleased with the lack of leadership, it’s down to him, Wells and Ford to break down the responsibilities and delegate the decision making.

    Woodward eventually built up a team packed with decision makers where no one player took it all on his shoulders and taking off the captain was not such a huge issue as it was on Saturday.

    The set-piece seemed well managed, probably because the tight five was the unit with probably the most familiarity, but the defence seems to have taken a backward step, after rising to the fore in the RWC knockout stages.

    Once the backline settles down a bit we can hopefully see more cutting edge. You have to remember that as well as the try, Sackey did everything but score (and there but for a different camera angle he might have done). What was disappointing though was that our only try came from our old fallback option of a cross-kick. Lovely offload from the Volcano though!

  5. 9 and 15 carried their poor club form to the England team, and yet both survived the chop. As commented above, neither are long term prospects worth investing in, so for God’s sake hold them accountable and give someone else the experience. It’s not as if he’s afraid to drop people – Narraway for Easter is an interesting one. The tubby one only looks at his best when super-fit (as he was going into the RWC) so this is a curious decision. Going to be a tough game.

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