The trials and tribulations of England

England Team

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.

23 thoughts on “The trials and tribulations of England

  1. “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.”

    I am interested to know what NH teams think of tours to the south or any games played against SH opposition.
    Do they have any desire to win these games or is it ok to lose as long as the predetermined goal is achieved which might be to seek new talent for a world cup three years ahead.

  2. It seems to me that Clive Woodward is just about the only coach of a Northern Hemisphere nation to set out as one of his core objectives regular victories against the Southern Hemisphere and he ended up winning 11 in a row including beating all 3 on their own turf. The mindset was to create a winning environment so England would establish themselves as the number one team in the world.

    The obsession with building solely for the next World Cup is utter rubbish. How can you start timing a run in order to try and peak for 1 month in 4 year’s time? It’s near impossible.

    What coaches should be doing is seeking to build an environment in which all players can thrive. The fact that such good players go so far into their shells when they pull on an England shirt points to the fact that the environment is wrong. Putting that right should be the priority. In only giving the coach a 1 year contract, the RFU have ensured that this won’t happen as it is now all about short term fixes.

    And in answer to your point about establishing new players, I can’t think of anything worse than chucking youngsters in for their debuts in the House of Pain and getting embarrassed. It’s damaged a long line of players before. There are too many tours (what is wrong with a summer off every now and then) and too much is asked of the players in that respect, hence senior players pull out.

  3. Well fun though it was, that late unexpected run in the RWC did paper over a lot of cracks. Any regular rugby fan who knows his arse from his elbow could have told you that something needed to change after the RWC. Rob Andrew on the other hand couldn’t.

    He pointed to the fact that we did have a lot of possession in most of our games as a sign that we were playing well, but as one of you boys (think it was Stu Peel) pointed out during the tournament, it’s next to useless without territory and still is (in the Wales game we had nearly half of the second half possession but less than a quarter of the territory – need I remind anyone of the result?).

    Continuity of selection is still a huge problem. At the moment it’s been forced largely by injury, but in the World Cup there were frequently 4 or 5 changes a game without that many being forced and Ashton knew only 5 of his fifteen weeks before the tournament.

    It’s all got very fashionable to knock Woodward for being overly controlling and to advocate an oh-so-trendy laissez-faire empowerment-driven management style, but that’s just another way of saying you can’t make a decision for yourself so you’ll leave it to the players. Players need direction, even senior players felt this during the RWC.

    I remember under Andy Robinson when Worsley said that he didn’t like the Woodward regime but that Robinson had come in and brought more of a club atmosphere to the team. Referring back to Woodward he said “fair enough, he did win the World Cup but I prefer working under Andy Robinson”!

    That attitude has never gone and there’s no short-term gameplan (hence the resemblance to trial matches) and no long-term targets (Ashton has openly said that he hasn’t set any targets for how many games we should win).

    Aim high and you’ll achieve high. Aim nowhere and you’ll get……erm, well, you know, whatever.

  4. The comments from Stuart and Rob capture the issues perfectly. I’m intrigued by the comments about how BA has learnt from the RWC and modified his approach to the head coach role. Looks to me like we are back to the pub team.

  5. Isn’t the real issue that Ashton is (has been at least) a very good backs coach but lacks the all round motivational and organisational skills required to be a head coach?

    Seems to me he is too much of a nice guy for the role.

  6. To an extent but also that he was not allowed to choose his own coaching team. There is conflict between his and John Wells’ fundemental views of how to approach the game and the chat is that the players are all too aware of this and it creates negativity. A head coach who can’t choose exactly who is working with him is hamstrung from the start. The uncertainty of England’s play is a reflection of the uncertainty of the training environment. (Currently writing something on this very subject).

  7. He’s never really won anything as a Head Coach though has he, other than in the ‘shamateur’ era at Bath when the team picked itself. Still, let’s face it, the root of the whole problem is that he was a cut-price, easy appointment for the RFU. What with Robinson’s payoff they couldn’t afford paying top money for a new coach as well, let alone paying off all the existing backroom team if the new man wanted his own coaches.

    Add to that the still very recent departures of Larder, Alred, Reddin, Lydon and the wage bill is really stacking up!

    And there are some people out there who believe he got the job on merit! Initially I was symapthetic towards Ashton, but I can’t sympathise much given what’s come out about the lack of preparation for the RWC games and the vagueness about what he expects from his team.

  8. These are all good points, but the critical one is that, as rugbyrwgbi says, BA is not a leader. You can be the best coach in the world, but if you’re not a leader you will not succeed as a head coach at this level. I’m sure many of us would admit that we over-index on the comparisons to SCW – and we should also remember that it took him a long time to hit the peak of 2003 – but it was his leadership that won us the world cup, not his coaching or tactical skills. He has those, sure, but moreover he is a visionary, who can identify a winning strategy and ruthlessly execute a plan to get there. And part of that execution was being very careful with how he managed his relationship with the players, to maintain the right balance of respect and professionalism. Contrast this with the Uncle Brian approach.

  9. Not offering excuses but: 1. They’ve lost a huge amount of experience through retirement and injuries. Those players that remain from the RWC have, largely, been off-form;

    2. The newbies in the team have yet to bed in – not helped by lack of preparation time – i.e. a full GP programme the weekend before the Wales match and indeed this weekend. The reason they play like a bunch of strangers is because they ARE a bunch of strangers; and

    3. They’ve had really crule luck with injuries. None of which are within Ashton’s control. However:

    4. Selection has been very poor – with too many off-form players being retained as well as some who just aren’t good enough; and

    5. England’s bench srategy is a shambles. Both of which are Ashton’s responsibility

  10. The comments regarding the pack are spot on – they seem to flag at the 60 minute mark which leads to a progressive lowering of the England game. Add to this, On Saturday, bringing off JW and substituting DC, without having a number 12 of Catt’s veteran stature to hold things together for that transition from premiership to International level, and you have a recipe for disaster. This isn’t, by the way, a criticism of Cipriani, who is an excellent no. 10, but dropping the poor guy in when all around him is collapsing, and with a 15 who spends far too much time out of position, is not the best piece of decision making. JW had enough trouble when all fell to pieces against Wales.
    Quite why Balshaw is playing instead of Josh Lewsey is beyond me. Maybe BA should be thinking of making “mass” substitutions of the pack somewhere just after halftime, to get new legs on the pitch en masse, rather than watching as one after another of the boys switches off.
    Game of the Tournament will probably be Wales vs France. Bugger.

  11. The whole second half collapse is a great point Chris. The mind boggles as to what (if anything) they are doing in training.

    Has anyone noticed any of the England team flagging in the last 20 minutes of club games? I certainly haven’t (other than my previous comments on here about Wasps falling away in the second half of some games).

    I’m sure anyone who’s reasonably fit and active will agree that even when you’re at your fittest, a week or even a few days without intense training can leave you feeling like you’ve lost your fitness (like myself this morning, feeling like death after my first gym visit in 5 days!).

    The way our boys just fold after 55-60 mins (three points in each second half so far) is alarming. We’ve not scored a second half try since Tonga and they were so bad that Faz got a try! What do you think’s the cause? Any fitness experts out there that can explain our collapse?

    They should sack Dave Reddin. Oh yeah, they did already!

  12. I don’t think it’s a fitness issue. With the exception of the tubby no.8 of course. It’s a mental discipline issue. Everyone starts to feel tired after 60 minutes or so, but the mental discipline and focus is what should drive you on. Having players on the pitch like Johnson, Dallaglio, Back, etc makes a big impact in reinforcing that drive. So who have we had on the pitch at the 60 minute mark in the last few games? Vickery, when playing, tends to get subbed by then, leaving nodoby to demand that 100% commitment (not really sure Vickery does that when he’s on). Layer this on top of an uninspiring and aimless head coach, and it’s no surprise we fade away.

    PS – if Balshaw gets picked ahead of Lewsey for the France game I’m going to kidnap him

  13. The second half collapse seems to be a combination of the mental discipline and the scoreline. I wonder if things would have been different had ENgland been leading by, say, 3 points or trailing by several. The point is that a team like New Zealand, regardless of who they are playing, keep on, and on, and on, and on….racking up huge points tallies. So why don’t England?
    I’m sure it is not smugness or laziness but something is going wrong and it cannot just be a leadership issue. We have all seen England look good in the first half only to press the “eject” button at 55 minutes or so. I don’t know what the answer is but I am still leaning towards a quick rolling substitution of the pack/backs as necessary in order to keep up the momentum and to get the ball out to the wings instead of bringing the ball back into the centre and taking hit after hit, tiring out the players even more rapidly.
    Oh and not playing Balshaw of course ;-)

  14. Well I’ve had a moment of clarity today where I think I’ve sussed out exactly what’s going on.

    The RFU have put Ashton up to this and told him to turn us in to a laughing stock for a year or two. ‘Why?’ I hear you ask.

    Because they really want to employ Jake White but at the moment there are lots of ardent patriotic fans who can’t bear the thought of a non-Englishman taking the job.

    Much more of this though and even the proudest of Englishmen will be screaming “give us anyone, anyone but Ashton!”. Never mind Jake White, I think I’d rather see Barry White than Ashton.

    You might not agree with my theory, but I can’t think of any more plausible ones to explain his continued employment can you?

  15. Barry White? Just had an awful image of Ashton crooning “can’t get enough of your love baby” to Mr Balshaw. But you may be right about the “two years of cr*p rugby” scenario. Maybe the RFU want to lull our opponents in the 2011 world cup into a false sense of security.

    I don’t understand it. When you look at the guys who are playing (well, 14 of them anyway, no names mentioned like Balshaw) we should have a class team.

    OK. You’re right. It’s Ashton and a clear lack of leadership from within the team. Remember the Bismarck was almost impregnable, but then someone took out the rudder and it was game over.

  16. Sorry Rob – bad news. I called the executors of the Barry White estate on your behalf. Unfortunately the miserable buggers refused to make any commitment to release him for England duty. This country.

  17. Mat – I guess that is because he is dead, and no reflection on his commitment to the team. I’m sure he still has more to contribute than Brian.

  18. You see, I keep saying that Ashton has taken us backwards – the Boks were training naked 5 years ago, and it was the whole squad not just 2 of them.

    Once again we’re years behind the times!

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