Stuart Peel is back in town and writing exclusively for The Rugby Blog during this year’s RBS Six Nations – and what better place to start than assessing England’s problems?
Often rugby supporters, including those on this site, are not very kind about football. We rather laugh at the sport’s excesses, brand it soft and snigger at its self-importance, while basking in the fact that camaraderie between supporters and Corinthian spirit is alive and well in the oval ball game. In reality the true position of both lies somewhere between these extremes and there is plenty that each can learn from the other.
Casting the mind back to England’s dismal displays in the Autumn internationals (sorry to bring that up again), what really grated was the lack of cohesion between the players, the apparent lack of understanding of the gameplan and confusion regarding what precisely they were trying to achieve. If there was a strategy of any description, it was heavily disguised, and this was from the supposed best players in the country, men who turn in excellent performances for their clubs every week.
Now read this extract from the Times match report after Manchester United, with 3 midfielders playing in the back 4, their star striker injured and a novice pulling the strings in the middle, had dished out a 4-0 hammering to West Ham United:
Ferguson does not panic when Plan A disintegrates. Even when Plans B and C have been ripped to shreds, too, the trust in his squad — especially the fringe members, the frustrated B-listers — is absolute. What was he effin’ doing? Taking them out of their comfort zones, asking them to perform alien tasks, demanding versatility in potential adversity. Yet safe in the knowledge that they would not let him down. And they did not.
Sir Alex Ferguson has created an environment in which all individuals feel comfortable, know their jobs and have the courage and the nerve to take the initiative, however inexperienced they are. In the absence of seasoned campaigners, youngsters such as Darron Gibson and Rafael came to the fore and performed with aplomb.
Contrast this with the England rugby team. Much was made of the fact that virtually an entire first team was incapacitated in some way. This was regularly used as an excuse for poor results. It could be seen as a valid excuse for a club team or for a country with limited resources, but not for the largest rugby population in the world. But rather than an opportunity to be seized, it seemed as though it acted as a safety net into which the blame for any abject performances could be deflected. There was an air of defeatism from the start, plan A had gone and there was little trust in plan B.
In such an environment, few flourished. There was little evidence even of a plan at all. If there was one, the players either did not understand it or did not believe in it. Too many of them seemed inhibited. If the job of a coaching team is to get the best out of their charges both as individuals and as a unit, England’s failed spectacularly. Indeed, so limited was the ambition the injuries became irrelevant – they could have put anyone out there and they would have sunk without trace.
But can the finger be pointed squarely at the England coaches? One of the gripes about modern day rugby is that too many players are automatons who can throw huge amounts of metal around in the gym and tackle and carry the ball in straight lines until they’re blue in the face, but too few who can respond to the situation in front of them and make a split second decision in the knowledge that his teammates will respond. Too few are happy to emerge from their comfort zones.
Gloucester’s travails this season are a case in point. Bryan Redpath’s stated intention has been to move them away from the regimented approach of the Dean Ryan era and get them playing ‘heads up’ rugby, encouraging the players to express themselves. And Gloucester have been a mess. This could be poor coaching but there is evidence that the players are simply being asked to do things they are not used to and are not up to it. Could it be that England’s real problem is that they are being presented with players who cannot perform alien tasks or show versatility in adversity like Ferguson’s youngsters?
Too many of England’s players have many caps to their names and have only rarely made telling contributions. Mathew Tait has 30-odd caps, Dan Hipkiss, Danny Care, Toby Flood, and James Haskell a decent number. How often have any of them strongly influenced the outcome of a game? Often they play as though avoiding conspicuous mistakes will be enough to retain their place. Is this timidness on their part or are they afraid of getting dropped if they divert from the coach’s instructions?
It is often pointed out that new England players in recent years have come into a weak team which lacks confidence. But contrast them with the Australia team who recently toured. Having lost 5 out of 6 games in the Tri-Nations, they came to these shores and performed admirably. Players such as Quade Cooper and Will Genia stepped up and wielded significant influence. The All Blacks do not believe in rebuilding phases. Being selected for New Zealand comes with massive responsibility and no excuses. Losing is not tolerated, whatever the context. This is an attitude sorely missing from England and is holding them back at least as much as any lack of talent.
So which is it? Rigid, inflexible coaching or blinkered, limited players? The squad list for the Six Nations places the heat right back on the coaches. They have picked a squad to play a limited game. Do not believe the hype about picking Chris Ashton to score more tries. The root of most tries is quick ball, playing flat and direction at half back. England have picked a lumbering front five severely short on dynamism. They have picked no fewer than 4 fly halves in the Saxons squad (Charlie Hodgson, Shane Geraghty, Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler), all of whom are arguably more adept at firing a back line than either Toby Flood or Jonny Wilkinson. Almost every decision smacks of conservatism, suggesting England will have a prescribed gameplan. Let’s hope the players know what it is this time.
Jonny Wilkinson wrote recently of the Six Nations that it “is more like a series of one-off games. No matter how much you prepare, there remains the feeling that you have to play more off the cuff.” Evidence would suggest that if that is true, England are in trouble. Either the coaches are being too prescriptive, flooding the players with so much information, they struggle to even make a decision let alone the right one; or the players are simply not capable of responding to the demands to play what is in front of them, to show the qualities possessed by Manchester United’s players. The players and the coaches are not on the same page and if we are to see a team with any semblance of shape, confidence and cohesion solving this riddle must be the number one priority.
By Stuart Peel