Six lessons for England to take on board

The subdued, anticlimactic feeling that descended on the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium at the final whistle on Saturday was as conspicuous as the groans which greeted Owen Farrell’s skewed drop-goal attempt. At the end of a pulsating, if rather ugly Test match, neither side were at all content with a 14-14 draw. The hosts had squandered numerous chances to kill England off – both from the kicking tee and through elementary handling errors – and were evidently irritated with an inability to secure a whitewash. Equally, the tourists annoyingly ended an arduous month with a nil beside their name when perhaps their
perseverance merited more.


However, in a roundabout way, the atmosphere was encouraging for the short-term future of Stuart Lancaster’s charges. It meant that their ambition to return to home shores with a Springbok scalp was very real. Moreover, unlike the Ireland side that had utterly capitulated to a record defeat in Hamilton just hours earlier, it indicated that England possessed sufficient inner steel to match a southern hemisphere superpower for the third consecutive week.

A sense of insatiability is so central to rugby’s best. There is no better way of proving that than looking at the world champions. After scraping to a 22-19 over Declan Kidney’s men in Christchurch, New Zealand had the series sewn up. Even so, a habit of winning has given way to a culture of perfectionism. Kiwi press compelled better, yearned for a backlash. Inevitably, even after Steve Hansen’s selection gave his side a vulnerable sheen, that is exactly what they got, as a 60-0 victory sent shockwaves around the globe.

While Lancaster has emerged with credit from his first eight internationals, all things considered, the autumnal horizon holds no respite. In fact, the four QBE Internationals at Twickenham later this year – against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in that order – are hugely important. It is crucial that excuses about ‘transitional periods’ or ‘a developing team’ are totally allayed. Results must take precedence.

Pragmatic and unflappable, Lancaster is also an admirably fast learner. No doubt he will have already come to his own, accurate conclusions about what has gone on in South Africa. Even so, here are a few essentials to take forward.

Chris Robshaw is good enough at openside

Prior to the tour, the absence of a specialist seven was a cause of uproar. In rampaging form for Toulon, Steffon Armitage was overlooked. With Andy Saull injured, a smattering of natural blindsides and number eights convened. Carl Fearns made the trip for some experience with the Midweek Warriors. Who was going to be the ‘fetcher?’ Was Lancaster protecting his skipper’s spot? Surely the Harlequins talisman would be found as the pace intensified against the Springboks?

Well, after giving an indication of his credentials with an incredible showing in the Aviva Premiership final, Robshaw confounded critics at Durban. With 21 tackles and 31 ruck-clears in the series opener, the extent of his amazing engine was revealed. Four turnovers went beyond the call of duty. Though he was hampered by a cracked thumb and consequently much less effective in Johhanesburg, there should be no more question marks. In the latest Sunday Times, Stuart Barnes called for his inclusion on the Lions openside next summer. Bold, but good enough for me. Now to balance the back row with two of Tom Johnson, Tom Wood, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Morgan and Thomas Waldrom around him.

Harness Manu Tuilagi’s talents

By the mixed reaction of the Sunday Papers – Eddie Butler of The Observer wants him to stay at inside centre and be a distributer, The Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones sees his future on the wing – no one
really knows how best to use the Leicester Tigers cannonball. Whatever happens, he is both the perfect man to blast over the gain-line from first-phase and England’s most destructive defender. Given time, a midfield partnership with Jonathan Joseph will be show-stopping. That much is certain.

No more of Owen Farrell at fly half

The young Saracen has attributes by the bucket-load – few are more committed, none better at place-kicking. On temperament alone, he will eventually find a way into the England side. That cannot be in the number ten shirt, though. Nagging cracks that appeared subtly in the Six Nations got wider in the Killik Cup match against the Barbarians just before departure. At Durban, Farrell’s passing faltered in the spotlight and when Flood went early on Saturday, there wasn’t much hope of England putting together anything in wider channels. The default action was an aimless punt, which was hardly inspiring.

Taking Flood out of the equation, the best footballer and communicator in the 42-man squad is Alex Goode. Unfortunately, England did not touch the ball when he moved up to stand-off during Farrell’s blood-bin. Perhaps an idea for Fiji if 50-cap Flood isn’t fit? I think so.

Step up the physicality

Though this is something of a vague statement, the damning statistic that England missed 72 tackles over the course of the three matches is far starker. If the mundane interviews were to be believed, the tourists were ready for the Springboks abrasive gameplan. Certainly, flooding runners around the corner off Francois Hougaard was hardly rocket science. Even so, the likes of Geoff Parling and Dylan Hartley floundered enough in defence for such simplicity to be devastating.

Size isn’t the problem. Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton of Wales aren’t the biggest and their countryman Toby Faletau made over 50 tackles during the World Cup without missing one. Calls for the ‘lumberjack’ technique, especially against the bigger men, are completely justified. The (probable) return of Andy Farrell will help. It has to.

Define Mike Catt’s role

Bluntly, what the former London Irish guru added was not glaringly obvious. Throughout the three Tests, the England’s back-play was fractured at best – Chris Ashton and Ben Foden hunting for scraps rather than handed go-forward ball to feast on. After what was effectively a month-long trial, Catt has not managed to nail down a permanent position. Crucially though, the players respect him hugely. That should count for a great deal. Given time, he will have a massive influence and should be considered a potent weapon in Lancaster’s armoury and, if the head coach wants Catt’s ideas for the autumn, he should be incorporated alongside Farrell senior straightaway and charged with inciting a more adventurous framework. If not, throw him the stewardship of the Saxons for a prolonged period and watch the youngsters express themselves. A review of the coaching team is promised in the next ten days. We wait with baited breath.

Place high stock on domestic form

Goode’s showing on Saturday was a brilliant advert for the Aviva Premiership. Similarly, though many thought Joe Marler too raw for the cauldron of Test rugby, he coped well after a title-winning season. Most encouragingly, Johnson translated excellence for the plucky Exeter Chiefs onto a far more prestigious stage. Though the respective Barbarians sides were distinctly average, George Robson’s midweek boys put together some cohesive, fluent attacks and Tom Youngs will be knocking on the door with a strong September at Welford Road. Even Nick Abendanon and Jonny May, who joined proceedings very late, scored five tries between them and should be considered for their innate ability to beat defenders. Lancaster clearly has a lot of belief in the league system, and rightly so – the pool of talent at his disposal is deep.

Undeniably, England have the right ethos in place – there is faith in youth and an ingrained desire to work for each other. Autumn is the time to arrest the shortcomings and record results in black and white. It is an exciting prospect.

by Charlie Morgan

43 thoughts on “Six lessons for England to take on board

  1. Charlie,

    Can you please tell me how Parling and Hartley floundered in defence? Hartley wasn’t made captain for nothing, and didn’t Parling top the tackle stats in all three tests? If you actually watch the games you would see that in the first 2 tests in was the back row that missed the majority of tackles. I can’t stand poor, lazy reporters like yourself.

    1. I’ll ignore the personal stuff, Paul, but I better try to answer your questions.

      According to ESPNScrum’s stats, Hartley missed 6 tackles and made 18 over the opening two Tests. He wouldn’t be happy with that. The same stats say he missed one in the third Test – which was off the back of a maul in the second half shortly after he’d come back on after his binning. That put England under a great deal of pressure because SA’s straightforward running game gathered momentum. Your justification regarding his captaincy is irrelevant. He’s obviously a great leader and well respected within the group, as he is at Saints. I don’t dispute that.

      Parling’s numbers were impressive across the three Tests, as they always are. Twice though, he was shrugged off far too easily in the loose by Bismark du Plessis. Having watched all three games, those incidents stick out sorely. Regardless of his assets in the lineout, I think his relative lack of strength (compared to Lawes, Botha and Palmer) has been highlighted this series and might put his place under serious pressure. If he was making that many tackles and SA were still making huge gains around the fringes, surely my point stands up? The back row also missed tackles, as I alluded to in the bit about Robshaw – I just picked out these two.

      Hope that helps

        1. I agree about Hartley. He looked ineffective in all three tests. When he did tackle, it wasn’t stopping the runners in their tracks.

          To often he seems to me to go in for a big hit with the shoulder and either misses or is bounced off. Just tackle ’em round the legs Dylan!

          Didn’t see much of him in the loose either. Really paled in comparison to Du Plessis

          1. Hartley was aiming to take the legs away, launching himself at the big men’s shins rather than going into the midriff with the shoulder. I thought it was a pretty effective way of dealing with the inevitable weight disadvantage when tackling Spies or Alberts; you don’t win the contact, but you stop the run, and your back-row has a chance of stealing possession from the sprawling lump you just downed.

    2. I can’t people who go for insults instead of explaining their point properly. If you don’t agree, fine, but actually explain yourself properly instead of resorting to calling someone lazy without reason.

      Maybe it’s because you can’t actually hack a proper debate?

  2. Chris Robshaw is good enough at openside >>>> I agree he is good enough but i’d still love to see him partner Armitage at some point. Maybe Armitage from the bench? Back row is looking strong.

    Harness Manu Tuilagi’s talents >>>> Kind of an obvious point. Needs another go with Flood inside and JJ outside.

    No more of Owen Farrell at fly half >>>> I seem to do a lot of Farrell bashing on here. I just don’t think he has the vision/distribution for international rugby in any position yet. I think it will be hard for him to learn it.

    Step up the physicality >>>> defence was there in the 6N, it seemed to disappear with Farrell snr hopefully it will return with him.

    Define Mike Catt’s role >>>> I want a first rate (preferably SH) attack coach. Not another coach with ‘potential’.

    Place high stock on domestic form >>>> Agreed. as you point out If there is one thing you can praise Lancaster for it is this.

    1. Everyone seems to be hard on Farrell, and he did have a terrible start on Saturday. But once he remembered that passing was an option he did arguably a better job of it than Flood.

      I can’t stand the way Flood jogs away from the gainline before releasing the ball. Also I don’t like his tip-toe running style, the long sleeved undershirt he wears, his general demeanour and other important aspects of his game.

      1. Whoops… html tags are too advanced for me. Attempt #2:

        I can’t stand the way Flood jogs away from the gainline before releasing the ball. Also I don’t like his tip-toe running style, the long sleeved undershirt he wears, his general demeanour and other important aspects of his game.

        1. I personally think Flood will be overtaken by Ford before the Six Nations. Ford is more committed in the tackle, but also has the vision and speed of foot to exploit defences. Just the fact that he’s prepared to make tackles on bigger men already puts him in front of Flood for me. If Farrell was a little faster, and could use the space more wisely he would be the man, but he has a lot to learn. I think Farrell is less fragile than Flood, and less likely to get injured.

        2. “Also I don’t like his tip-toe running style, the long sleeved undershirt he wears, his general demeanour and other important aspects of his game.”

          All those “important aspects” are pure aesthetic criticisms, it sounds like you just don’t like the way he looks. The fact of the matter is England’s attack is far more fluid with Flood at ten than with Farrell. Also Flood isn’t a week defender. Ever since Jonny English fans aren’t happy unless the ten tackles like a 6.

          1. Yes, that was supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek. But I stand by the claim that he is a weak defender

        3. Pissed myself laughing at that Charlie. But I do agree – Pattacake Flood I used to call him. But what do we really expect from someone called Toby?

    2. Agree we totally need a coach with a track record in the set up. Let Catt develop the Saxons. Would be an improvement on Callard.

  3. A couple of points really:

    The fractured backplay can only partly be laid at Catt’s door I feel. Firstly I think that when Flood was at 10, the backs looked far more fluid. Farrell’s ‘dodgy’ tour, which was mainly due to tiredness I feel, though also partly due to his lack of ambition. I do think that the bit of backplay that was offered was better than the 6 Nations fare on the whole though.

    As to the criticism of Hartley and Parling. Everyone at some point missed “a” tackle which created issues, and to use that basis to finger Parling for criticism is harsh I feel. He is new to this level (not an excuse admittedly) is calling line-outs, disrupted the South African line-out more than anyone and a couple of tackles aside, defended stoically. I also feel that, in that second test, his tackling stint was all the more important as the back row underperformed in the first 50 to such an extent that we would have been even further behind had he not played like a second blindside at times. I may be wrong, but I think Parling played all 240 minutes of the three tests, and for me that puts him at No. 1 on Lancaster’s list, irrespective of size.

    Hartley has his faults, discipline the main one of course. I’m not coming down either for or against him but I thought he performed better in the first two tests, and that he had reined in his attitude. The yellow card in game 3 was for totting up across the team and could have happened to anyone. Our greatest ever captain was occasionally guilty of the odd daftness which led to yellow. Make your own judgment.

    Tuilagi is a centre by the way. No-one, and certainly not Stephen Jones, will convince me otherwise.

  4. I have to agree with those few who think everyone else is being a bit hard on Farrell. He’s not had the number of games at 10 for club or country to really build up that memory of how to play the game when under so much pressure that you don’t have time to think. I’m not saying he is definitely the answer at 10 but give him a chance to develop and see what some more experience and analysis of his own game brings.

  5. Is coaching really an issue? Does the team’s defensive orientation need an overhaul despite them not being totally outplayed by any team, or did the weather south of the equator just didn’t agree with them? The mindset on offense and defense needs to be in instilled and that goes for every individual, dual or team sport, except of course for golf where there is no defense (a little humor, guys).

  6. Some very good points made Charlie and a great read (ignore the buffoon above slating your reporting style, he couldn’t be further from the truth!).

    I think letting Catt take control of the Saxons would probably be the best move. Whilst London Irish’s attack isn’t bad, it doesn’t exactly set the world alight.

    However, I don’t necessarily think that the answer to England’s attacking problems has to come from the Southern Hemisphere. I think Brian Ashton could be worth a punt in all fairness. He openly admits that he always preferred being an assistant coach rather than head coach, and having listened to him talk about his attacking philosophy in the past (a good example of this was on Total Rugby, the IRB podcast a few months ago), he could be what we need. He was also involved with one of the most successful England sides in history, and you cannot buy that experience. Partner him with Andy Farrell as a defence coach and you have quite a solid backroom staff already.

    On the subject of having an out-and-out seven, yes Robshaw did have a brilliant tour, but he is yet to come up against the likes of Pocock and McCaw (or Rollawayblackseven as he is more formally known). I think Nick Hill’s call of bringing in Steffon Armitage at some point could prove to be the right one. No doubt about it though, our back row has some immense strength in depth at the moment and Tom Johnson is certainly one of the finds of the tour.

    Looking at Hartley, whilst I accept he is a good leader, his position as the number 1 hooker hasn’t really been threatened. I think a bit of added competition perhaps from Harlequin’s Joe Gray or the guy from Saracens (name escapes me) could help him improve further, which can only be a good thing.

    1. “I think Brian Ashton could be worth a punt in all fairness. He openly admits that he always preferred being an assistant coach rather than head coach, and having listened to him talk about his attacking philosophy in the past (a good example of this was on Total Rugby, the IRB podcast a few months ago)..”

      Ashton makes me laugh. Supposedly a revolutionary coach who taught Josh Lewsey some amazing stuff. Lewsey tells an anecdote of Ashton turning up and putting 2 tackle bags in front of the players. “What do you see?” … “2 tackle bags..” comes the sheepish reply … “No” says Ashton “3 gaps”. Wow, zen-like appreciation of rugby there. Basic rugby training for 7 year olds mind, but wow…

    2. I’m not sure if that Podcast is the same as the Total Rugby TV show on Directv. There was an episode after the RWC with a fascinating (and dare I say it, quite moving) interview with Graham Henry talking about the hole in his life that will be left by his retirement from the AB’s role. The Ashton interview in the same episode was very thought-provoking. He talks about coaching the ability to respond to the situation rather than what he called “the dreaded word, gameplan”. I also think he would have a lot to offer the England set up, better than Catt.

  7. “Robshaw >>> Stuart Barnes called for his inclusion on the Lions openside next summer…”. Not a direct response to this good article, but this is the first I heard of Barnes finally and unquestionably losing all objectivity and sanity. Robshaw is a tidy enough player but right now he is in one of the most competitive periods ever for British Isles back rowers… The Lions will be some sort of (and I can’t work out the best) combination of Ireland/Wales back rows with Scotland pushing them hard. As well as Robshaw does for England only a mad man would put him ahead of O’Brien/Warburton/Tipuric/Barclay.

    Also I am heartened to see that Farrel is now seen through. It’s no surprise how he plays for England, he does the same for Saracens. If this was footy they’d call Saracens a “long ball” team – let’s hoof it in the air and chase it, see what happens. Can be massively effective against a poor back three but it’s not enough for SA to win tests against the big teams. However, I do agree that he is only young so perhaps with some better influences he can learn to pass… but then what does that say about the clamour for his current coach to join the England setup?

    1. I don’t really agree with you on the open-side options Brighty

      O’Brien is not an open-side. Whilst Kidney might play him there, its not where he belongs and as an open-side he isn’t as good as Robshaw

      Tipuric is a very good prospect but hasn’t really been tested because he can’t get in front of Warburton. That of course may change by the time of the Lions

      Warburton is the one I’d agree with you about but he hasn’t looked great on this tour

      In order, assuming Warburton regains his form, I’d put him first followed by Robshaw, Tipuric and then O’Brien

      Think Robshaw will likely end up on the bench for the Lions as he can cover right across the back row.

      Barnes is useless, I’ve no argument there, but he’s not too far off on that call

      Lions back row for me would be Ferris, Faletau and Warburton. Morgan may get a look in if he can get his fitness levels right a

      1. I know O’Brien isn’t a proper 7 but I would still rate him above Robshaw as a 7. I have to keep saying this or I’ll just get accused of some anti-English bias, so to repeat, I do not think Robshaw is poor. Just that his competition for 7 is immense right now. I seriously think that if you take the Welsh and Irish back rows then you’re pretty much done for back row selection for the Lions… I can’t see Robshaw getting a look in as I don’t think that he can cover 6 and 8 as well as the 6/8s of Wales/Ireland can cover 7.

        Ferris instead of Lydiate? Brave call … again, one it’s hard to say is wrong but when you leave out Lydiate, man of the 6 nations tournament, you know you’ve got some tough choices in the back row. I’d go for Lydiate/Heaslip/Warburton.

        1. Hijacking the thread now, but here were the Sunday Times XVs

          Stephen Jones: 15. Ben Foden 14. Chris Ashton 13. Jamie Roberts 12. Gavin Henson 11. Max Evans 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Ben Youngs 8.Jamie Heaslip 7. Sam Warburton 6. Sean O’Brien 5. Courtney Lawes 4. Richie Gray 3. Adam Jones 2. Steve Thompson 1. Andrew Sheridan

          Peter Bills: 15. Ben Foden 14. Chris Ashton 13. Tommy Bowe 12. Brian O’Driscoll 11. Keith Earls 10. Jonny Sexton 9. Ben Youngs 8. Jamie Heaslip 7. Sam Warburton 6. Sean O’Brien 5. Courtney Lawes 4. Richie Gray 3. Adam Jones 2. Sean Cronin 1. Cian Healy

          Stephen Jones: Gavin Henson? GAVIN HENSON? MAX EVANS? Nutjob…

          Peter Bills: Ummm, so he’s picked the Irish team basically then?

          So the best Lions team is more or less this – Ireland and England with Warbs/Jones from Wales and Gray from Scotland. Funny…

          1. What will be good is revisting this in a year to see who made and who didnt! Im sure they’ll be at least one player starting who is not even on the radar at the moment!

          2. Some of these choices are just insanity. Henson? Evans? Thompson?? Sheridan???

            No Ha’penny. No North or Cuthbert. Bowe at 13. No Gethin Jenkins

            What’s even more unbelievable is that thay actually get paid to write this stuff

          3. Whoops, I fear I have done the hacks a misjustice here … as The Times is behind a paywall I looked these up on google and took them from a webboard … but they are from May 2011. My mistake, sorry … funny to see the large differences now though?

          4. In my slight defence … one of the hacks in the real article (I don’t have it with me in work and cannot get to it through website) didn’t go for North or Cuthbert .. he went for … and this is nuts … Ugo Monye.

        2. I like Lydiate alot. He’s not flashy and does everything he’s meant to do. Feel that a fit and firing Ferris offers more round the park though

          The second game vs the ABs aside I don’t think Heaslip has been anywhere near his previous standards for a while now.

    2. I wouldnt put Robshaw ahead of Warburton or O’Brien yet but if he keeps improving he’ll be in with a chance. Warburton hasnt been great since the World Cup, although to be fair I dont think he’s been 100% fit either.

      A bigger worry for the Lions will be fly half.

  8. I am probably the only one on here who is praying Cipriani has a stormer at Sale – the rest of the squad is nearly there, and the exposure of so many young players on this tour to test rugby at its most brutal will lay a real foundation for the years to come.

    The one area we still have no answer for is fly half – the way you figure out how best to use Manu, JJ, Ashton etc etc is to have a creative fulcrum with vision who can get the backbone moving, and outside of Cipriani I can’t see anyone else in the pipeline, and George Ford IMO has proved nothing yet apart from a couple of good performances for Lecister – let’s see how he develops next season before lauding him as the saviour.

    1. I am hoping that Ford can make it. I think he has all the tools to do so. You don’t get become the youngest person to win IRB Junior Player of the Year for no reason!

      If you look at previous winners – Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden and the runners up to Ford, Sam Cane and Luke Whitelock – these guys are only just beginning to break into their national teams, so Ford has time on his side

      Needs lots of game time though, so Leicester might not be the best place for him.

  9. Breaking news here people. Sarries website has announced that Andy Farrell is joining the England coaching set up.

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