I would like to qualify anything appearing in the following article with the comment that I have just emerged from a pub where I have watched England being humiliated by South Africa. Not only that, I had South Africans behind me and, even worse, Aussies next to me who knew nothing about rugby but were revelling in England’s incompetence.
OK, rant over, where to start? England hit a nadir today as low as when they were thrashed by France in Paris in the 2006 Six Nations. There are times when, despite a heavy defeat, you feel that a good performance may be just round the corner. This is not the case with the current England team. One almost hopes that they lose to Samoa to put them out of their misery and avoid the prospect of a similar beating from the Aussies in the quarter finals. This particular England fan is really not sure he could handle that.
One found oneself wondering what exactly England have been doing over the summer. It could be that they are all now very good at water skiing and poker but the rugby really does not seem to have progressed very much. The utter lack of penetration and coherence almost beggared belief and the skill level was lamentable. Clearly there were mitigating circumstances with the lack of a fly half and at times the admirable Mike Catt looked as uncomfortable in the role as he used to in the bad old days of the 1990s. But the lack of direction started long before the game reached him. Shaun Perry appeared to be rather confused in the first half about whether quick or slow ball was preferable. He concluded incorrectly – heaven knows how much time the ball spent at the back of the ruck waiting to be released but it probably stretched into minutes.
England played as though much of their training has been unopposed. They were completely outmuscled at the breakdown leading to a vast turnover count. The backs operated so far behind the gain line that the South Africans could let it all unfold in front of them before applying pressure in the necessary areas.
The South Africans by contrast knew how they wanted to play and carried out their plans with ruthless efficiency. Fourie Du Preez exploited space (an alien concept to England apparently) wherever it was to be found, and through Butch James and Percy Montgomerie South Africa’s kicking game kept England pinned on the back foot.
At present, England can not be looking past the huge potential banana skin that is Samoa next week. But whether they win or lose that game, the time for England to start looking forward will soon be upon us. Prior to the World Cup, it stood to reason that Brian Ashton should not be judged on the tournament as he had not been in the job for long enough to develop his own squad. Yet the lack of progress has been so abject that one wonders whether Ashton can move the side forward. His reputation at club level is second to none but there has been little evidence of any level of inspiration. One of the main criticisms of Andy Robinson surrounded his team selection, but this year alone Ashton has used no fewer than 9 different full backs, 6 fly halves, countless second rows and many more besides. Much of this was due to circumstance but one cannot argue that there has been any level of consistency.
Whether Ashton remains or not, the next four years cannot possibly be used as poorly as the previous four and England must start building immediately. Youth must be given its head and the squad must be allowed to develop and grow together. A World Cup debacle such as this must never be allowed to happen again.
By Stuart Peel