Still concerns for rampant England
September 24, 2011
England boss Martin Johnson was all-smiles following his side's 10-try romp but will it last? © Getty Images
England cranked through the gears on their way to a 10-try romp against a brave but limited Romania but there remains cause for concern for manager Martin Johnson and his team.
The result was never in doubt and Romania's decision to rotate their options ahead of their tournament-defining showdown with Georgia next week only reinforced the belief that this was going to be more of a cricket score than a true rugby contest.
This game was always going to be about England's ability to identify and fix the shortcomings evident in their first two games that ended in victory but with as many questions as answers. This performance was a huge step forward but given the standard of the opposition any positives gleaned from the game must be viewed with caution. England's urgency and clear desire to play at a high tempo was both refreshing and rewarding and such an approach would have created opening in even the most resolute of defences and as a result it was no surprise to see Romania struggle to plug the gaps.
Mark Cueto was the beneficiary of much of that good work and his hat-trick of tries will provide a significant boost to a player who had scored just once in his previous 25 Test appearances and whose World Cup appeared to be hanging by a thread only recently with a hamstring injury hanging over him.
Chris Ashton's own trio of tries served to underline his boundless energy and takes his impressive tally to 14 in 16 appearances and perhaps more importantly five in just two World Cup outings. Ashton appears to live on his emotions more than most and is a far better player when he is getting payback for his endeavour as opposed to the disheartened figure denied the chance to give the swan dive an airing.
Ashton's enviable scoring prowess is currently being matched by centre Manu Tuilagi whose fourth Test try in only his fifth appearance will have been noted by all of England's World Cup rivals. The 20-year-old, who many need reminding is only in his first season of senior rugby, is on a steep learning curve as a result but Johnson's calculated gamble continues to pay dividends. His youthful exuberance and undoubted game-breaking talent makes for a potent mix when aligned by the experience and vision of the likes of fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.
From a fresh face to an old stager. The performance of captain Lewis Moody was another huge bonus for and England side desperate to hit their stride in time for the knock out stages. Last weekend he openly admitted he was just happy to be back playing but having that surmounted that mental hurdle he kicked on and then some against Romania. Suddenly we saw the old 'Mad Dog' Moody throwing himself around the park and setting the tone for his side in terms of commitment and work-rate.
England's bold approach resulted in a largely error-free performance in terms of handling which was crisp and adventurous but a penalty count that also trumped Romania hints that not all was well. Some of the infringements may have come from England's own eagerness to hammer home their dominance, with Romania unable to go toe-to-toe at the breakdown, but there were enough self-inflicted errors to warrant repeated viewing in analysis. Such shortcomings may be fine against a side of Romania's blunt standing but come the business end of the tournament they will find them proving very costly.
Romania's guts were commendable but if this was a boxing contest the towel would have been thrown long before the final whistle. The Oaks are one of the leading Tier 2 nations and supposedly leading the charge to close the gap on the Tier 1 superpowers but this mismatch highlights that flawed grading system and gulf in class that remains a barrier to the sport's development. The gutsy performances from the sport's minnows that were a highlight of the tournament's opening week are now a thing of the past. Instead we have the cold hard truth that we have always known but sometimes choose to ignore in the hope of a miracle - the game is blighted by the yawning chasm between the haves and have nots.
The debate over the schedule has some way to run but surely it is not in the best interests of the sport to force smaller nations to weather short turnarounds especially if those demands in turn lead to those teams disregarding certain fixtures in favour 'must-win' games. Such an approach may trigger sympathy in certain quarters but may be seen as a slight on the tournament by others.
With the knock out stages almost upon us - with a defeat for Argentina against Scotland on Sunday set to guarantee England's progress - there is increasing concern that Johnson's charges are not sufficiently battle-hardened for that step up in class. The clash with Argentina was suitably brutal but the rugby was poor while worryingly one-sided victories over Georgia and now Argentina leave England a little exposed.
The destiny of Pool B is still very much up for grabs despite England's unbeaten record. Victory for Argentina against Scots will see the latter tackle the auld enemy needing a win to preserve their World Cup status while victory tomorrow for Scotland will make next weekend's showdown a pool decider. So either way England can expect a more demanding game in every department with the question being are they primed for such a battle?
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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