It was said that England lost the Rugby World Cup Final of 1991 against Australia through inflexibility. Our narrative was that we felt our strategy was going to work, and then it didn’t! The Campese deliberate knock down hardly helped but we didn’t mix up our game enough to keep the Aussies guessing when the game was there for the taking.
So it was in Cardiff, when nobody really believed that England’s kicking based approach would work again on it’s own but they persisted and the game slipped away. Why not give that new look midfield a bit of ball. But no. Then on Saturday against Italy the equivalent of cricket’s ‘flat track bully’ (remember Graeme Hick) was in evidence and any side would have struggled against that power. Rumour abounds that Jones wants to try the Ford/Farrell axis again this weekend, well why not perhaps in the last 20 minutes.
Surely people can see what is happening here! Journos have too much space to fill now and are refuelling on new stories wherever they look. Jones seems to be trying to make sure he is equipped for any strategy and of course he has at his disposal the deepest playing resource in the world. As we sit here, England has all the on-field diversity that it needs. The biggest question is whether they can flex the strategy when faced with challenges, as with Wales. That is a mental thing and the answer will not come on Saturday as a feeble excuse for a grudge match unfolds. Scotland is riven with injury and Jones may extract some personal revenge as will the team after last year. With it could come the Six Nations Title of course, lest anyone forget!
NB the Farrell/Tuilagi/Slade midfield is the one they need to win a World Cup.
The big one in Cardiff is tough to call. Ireland is arguably a team which has peaked too early and trying desperately to hold the level, while Wales has already achieved something incredible against their resource backdrop and domestic turmoil. Huge credit to the coaches and the squad. A wonderful end to a tournament which has been disappointing in so many ways. The much anticipated level playing field was tarnished by French ‘laissez faire’, Scottish injuries and an improving Italy failing to match a general upturn in standards. It rendered half the matches meaningless and although I wasn’t there, the second half of the France and Italy games at Twickenham apparently resembled a multi thousand strong drinks and networking occasion rather than a properly competitive atmosphere.
For what it’s worth, I think that emotion and home advantage should see Wales edge Ireland but not by much. In which case they and England will progress to the Rugby World Cup as strong contenders for at least a semifinal place. Make no mistake though, England is the unknown quantity and a team to fear. How things change in a year.
Finally, I wonder if Italy smell an upset in the Rome sunshine against the French. They have offered enough in attack to indicate their capabilities and they know how to sustain their effort. No-one will forget Nick Mallett’s tears as he coached Parisse and his men to glory a few years ago against ‘Les Bleus’ – it was special and could happen again.
The Rugby world has been so busy this season it has been hard to keep up. Here is what has caught my eye so far:
- The All Blacks can be beaten, even at home. Great news for everyone and for South Africa who have momentum despite everything. The Rugby World Cup suddenly looks less like a procession. The Springboks are definitely contenders whatever happens this weekend or elsewhere. Pace and power are their mantra and with the back three England have it could be a cracker of a match at Twickenham.
- Leinster lost to Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup – the revival of a giant? Too early to tell but I have been warning about a French resurgence and with Racing and Clermont in fearsome form, not to mention Stade Francais a well respected commentator who tipped them for the World Cup obviously didn’t notice that they are in England’s pool!
- Saracens and Exeter are a cut above the rest domestically – but as ever that doesn’t necessarily mean they dominate the England team. But they do know how to lead and win, which is why Farrell and Slade have to be inked in to take the England midfield forward in my opinion.
- The revival of Edinburgh and Cardiff domestically and in Europe is credit to the investment and focus of those in charge. Can only be good for the game at large.
- Ireland is there to be targeted and generally they do not like to be favourites- difference here is their great depth in many positions but still an unusual position and I am fascinated to see how they deal with it.
- Interesting to see how the November Internationals play out on the discipline front. Europe has set the tone re high tackles and hopefully we will see player behaviour changing. Or else the sky may be a tinge of red by the end and more education required.
- I had to laugh as the Will Carling mentor announcement caused widespread scepticism because he apparently had nothing to do with three Grand Slams and a World Cup Final – it was all about some gnarled old forwards who became well known as a result. The same forwards who could hardly string two wins together or play a half decent match until the Cooke, Carling, Uttley regime arrived to usher in a golden era. Short memories but isn’t that why we love the game?
Whether he makes a difference or not to England, all teams need trust, loyalty, commitment, honesty and humility running through their DNA, as well as to understand leadership. If he can help with that then it can only improve those small percentage points required to win big tournaments.
Oh, and did I mention Selection ?!!
Standards everywhere are steaming higher – even with the globe trotting Barbarians. They operated at a pace which stunned some top England players over the weekend and leaves you worrying for their individual ability to cope with more of the same in Japan next year. Jones may wish to stop analysing too much and pick from Saracens and Exeter with a few from the rest. It could be that obvious.
What else is becoming obvious? Farrell has to play in his pivotal position and how about Slade at 12. That combination is threatening and potent and can feed a fast running outside set of backs, of which England has plenty. Let it thrive and Ford is always there as back up. The Vunipola show gets better and I like the look of Isikwe…..back row pace and power is critical and he has a lot of both.
Ireland is on a five day party in England! Cheltenham first then on to Twickenham to pitch for a Grand Slam – which would be an incredible achievement against a wounded England who are the two times defending Six Nations champions. That would hurt beyond hurt for the hosts and be an all time achievement in my mind for the men in green. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to remind ourselves of a few glory-bound teams being undone on the final day of the 5/6 Nations…
Scotland came to Twickenham chasing a Triple Crown in the final match of 1987 against a winless England lacking 5 players who had been banned for fighting, including the Captain. Scotland were thumped 26-12.
England went to Murrayfield on a triumphal march in 1990 to claim the Grand Slam and instead it went to Scotland. No-one is forgetting that one.
England travelled to Cardiff and Dublin in recent years for the ultimate prize and were comprehensively undone on both occasions.
Ireland would do well to remember all this as they try to impose their relentless style of play built on possession and low error count. I have always loved Ringrose as an attacking talent, and together with the Sexton link play there is try scoring potential. But last year it was the pack which subdued the English challenge, which to be fair did not consist of much on the day. I suspect the same approach again lies in store and this year the Irish forwards are brimming with confidence and world class operators.
For England, they should look to play with some organised chaos, old Ireland style. The pack have to play with ferocity and aggression for the first time in the Championship – Kruis has a chance for redemption as does Haskell. Sinckler will be a handful, so will Itoje who owes England a big one. Farrell is a supreme passer in midfield and now will have first shout on the distribution and no-one will come down his channel confidently. He will feed the pace out wide better than Ford. Te’o and Joseph have plenty to prove in my opinion, but they may not be the influential players on the day.
Bottom line England must rip into Ireland and keep it up for 80 minutes, disruption being the order of the day. There is enough anger and hurt in this team surely to deliver the first real performance of a tournament they have barely turned up for. Eddie Jones keeps saying it is his coaching that has failed when England loses – I don’t buy that, it’s a cheap distraction and for another day to wonder whether he should be the attack coach as well as everything else. This is down to the players, and whether you wear white or green I simply cannot call it – but if I had to, then a big hearted England performance can surely be enough at home – just.
Talking of parties, whoever wins tomorrow the party will be long and hard as with all England Ireland contests, and I should know!
You know something is afoot when Sir Ian McGeechan featured some of the greatest Calcutta Cup clashes in his weekly article in the Sunday Telegraph. I happened to have played in six of those games back in the 80’s and 90’s and they were all titanic struggles. The implication is that this weekend will be another one of those but I am not so sure. Scotland appear to have believed their own press from the Autumn Internationals – including mine! A cardinal error which was almost repeated against a French side which hasn’t won in months and had only one player, Teddy Thomas, to thank for a ray of hope thus far in the Six Nations.
England are apparently flatlining with an unconvincing win over a Scarlets-dominated Wales, or are they. Appalling conditions were just what the doctor ordered for the free running Welshmen, within 20 minutes England had scored twice and tactically embarrassed the men in Red. But there it stayed and by the end we were wondering if they were plain lucky after some Welsh near misses. I disagree – you can only beat what is in front of you, this is a fine Welsh team, and everyone is improving so by definition so is England. They just seem to get away with not playing much sustained rugby, with flashes of try scoring brilliance and the peerless Farrell directing affairs. It could be that they are developing the priceless ability to make the opposition believe that they simply cannot win. Is this the real Jones impact?
Is there a case for Scotland against whom England tends to lose only every now and then, usually from complacency? The dry weather forecast will help the Scots, but there is no point eulogising about Stuart Hogg’s class because England will snuff him out if there are no other threats. Finn Russell’s inexplicable ‘laissez faire’ attitude towards the game right now would have him out of the team if there was an alternative but there isn’t. He could have a horrible day at Murrayfield, especially as Eddie Jones has now chosen to big him up, or else all that will backfire and he has a blinder! Bottom line is that if only one Scotsman gets into the England team on merit then there should be only one result, and the psychology of last year’s hammering will be lurking under the surface.
It is ironic that the only in form flair player the French seem to have, Teddy Thomas, has ruled himself out with off field discretions, as if it could get any worse. People forget they were within an inch of being two from two but instead face an unlikely challenge from the desperate Italians, whose partial revival at club level cannot yet match the general uplift in standards of every else. It is their best chance for a win this year – I wonder.
Wales’ season rests on a triumph in Dublin so nothing to lose and they can definitely do it – Ireland has yet to click this season and, if so they will be relentless, but in my opinion it is anyone’s match.
Back to England and their approaching date with history – are they really to be denied their tilt at glory by this Scottish team, talented but maverick and not really of the standard of their great sides of the 80’s and early 90’s when they really did send the English ‘homewards tae think again.’ I think not, but then that’s what we imagined in 1990……..