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.
Why did I imagine that Ireland was not good enough for a Grand Slam – nerveless (40 plays before the miracle Sexton drop goal in Paris), clinical (Italy), and coldly predatory (Scotland and Wales), before rendering the tumultuous St Patrick’s Day clash somewhat academic after 40 remarkable minutes at Twickenham. Trying to stay warm became a major consideration as England struggled to make a statement in the closing stages against an Ireland team which was calmness personified. This group of players can definitely win a World Cup (no pressure because no track record) but for now let us salute some hardbitten forwards, world class half backs and a number of inspirational game breakers who may be highly influential next year – Stockdale, Ringrose, Larmour and Carberry. Worthy Grand Slam Champions without a doubt and a European Cup also awaits if they can keep the intensity (well rested of course, very few of their key players pulled on a shirt this past weekend other than to keep the sun off their backs).
Elsewhere, Wales blooded their youngsters impressively, and Gatland has a spring in his step as he has real depth of quality now in his squad. They feel they should have beaten England (shhh) so the season could have been even better. The Scarlets await La Rochelle this weekend in the Champions Cup and with Cardiff riding high in Pro 14 and quarterfinalist in the Challenge Cup there are reasons to be cheerful in the Land of our Fathers.
France will take heart from their campaign despite no flyhalf in sight, and while more roundhead than cavalier these days they will only get better after a dismal time. I say that because they now have a rock hard defence and at last one or two flair players to celebrate as long as it’s on the field of play. One point defeats to Wales and Ireland – both games they should have won – are a sign of recovery and what may have been.
Which sums up Italy – their winless campaign was misleading and they had plenty to offer this year especially in attack. Parisse is waning, but Negri and Polledri could both make it into the England team, and Minozzi at fullback is a genius.
Scotland produced the half of the tournament against England, and the trio of Russell, Jones and Hogg provide essential star quality to match the reinvigorated forward effort which is bearing fruit at every level now. Their excellence in the back row and midfield is the key, as for any team wanting to be the best in the world.
Which brings me to England and their inability to find mix and balance in those areas. In a world of process and centralised instruction, this is where the coaching and selection matters and we saw little of it. Overtrained, fatigued, lacking leadership and passion are the media’s favourite clamours (after two successive championships mind you) …… something of everything I suppose, on my shopping list is an attack coach which will be a start, the current strategy is not easy to see or appreciate. More generally, forget 5th position and think more about being conclusively outplayed for long periods of the tournament. That is also what’s worrying the powers that be at Twickenham who simultaneously are trying to raise returns while the performance goes in the other direction. England supporters (the right ones) may just be a little more savvy than that.
All in all, the pundits were right so let us raise a glass of the black stuff to our friends across the Irish Sea. Maith thú!