Not many could argue that the opening two weekends of the Six Nations have been particularly encouraging from an England perspective.
The build up to the tournament was filled with excitement and with confidence – England had just reached the World Cup final, and seeing the wealth of young talent on display in the Premiership and the potential for England’s future was mouth-watering.
There was talk of looking forward, of creating a core team with continuity of selection, of building for the next World Cup, of looking forward to 2011.
Our expectations were largely met during the first half at HQ with total domination of the Welsh – there’s not much better in rugby than that. Yet here we are, played two, lost one, narrowly won the other against Italy.
Stu Peel wrote last week of the lack of leadership, and this has been well-documented since – Stephen Jones obviously picked up on the idea for his article in The Sunday Times – but from my armchair view, the England team is also desperately missing any sense of teamwork.
This may indeed be a symptom of the absent leadership, but the players seem to be playing for themselves as a bunch of 15 individuals, almost as if it’s a trial match. Perhaps they feel as though they are on trial to be selected in the core team that will start the first game in New Zealand 2011?
Against Wales we saw the eagerness of James Haskell to impress, resulting in the concession of a number of penalties; we saw that excruciating phase of play where one player shipped rubbish on to the next in desperation; and we saw Iain Balshaw under pressure and being charged down for Wales’ try. Against Italy in the second half, the forwards looked lost, each battling on his own against the collective defensive might of the Azzurri; and there was Balshaw’s 30-metre pass in front of his own posts.
We have also seen Lesley Vainikolo criminally underused in both games. We have had glimpses of his power, such as early in the Italy match when he stomped along the touchline and nearly put Haskell in for a try, but hardly anything else. Are the other players reluctant to set him free in case he steals the limelight, the headlines and the coveted England jersey for the next four years? I admit this might be stretching the argument slightly too far, but I thought I’d throw it out there.
There is then the question of the second half ‘collapse’ in both matches. Anyone that has played a trial match will know how exhausting it is trying to be everywhere in order to stand out and impress – maybe this explains the loss of shape and direction in the latter stages of the game. Fitness is usually an area where England excels, but this side seems to run out of steam for the last 20 minutes of the game.
Looking at the last few years, the successful England teams have been just that – a team. In 2003, the forwards in particular always played for each other – the 6-man scrum in New Zealand springs to mind – and in 2007, the spirit of teamwork is largely credited with overcoming adversity on the march to the final.
Against France, England’s current crop will need to join forces and play as a unit, supporting each other in defence and driving each other forward in attack. With everyone working towards a common goal, England should be more dynamic, conceding fewer turnovers and enjoying quicker, better quality possession.
If they fall to pieces in the second half again, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans will simply cut them open at will and England will be desperate to beat Scotland to avoid the Wooden Spoon.