England have it all to do
October 4, 2011
Can England manager Martin Johnson gets his side firing for their quarter-final showdown with France? © Getty Images
Tempting though it is to dissect the reputation England have built for themselves off the field during this World Cup, it would be beyond simple analysis or a brief bout of navel-gazing.
There is neither the time nor the space to go into what I regard as very deep questions of the nature of a professional rugby player's existence in a changing landscape; into which you can toss opinion and debate on the old amateur status, the 24-hour spotlight cast by multiple media, the mores and taste for humiliation and revenge of sections of British society, and the consequences of paying players to play a game that can be exciting, life-affirming, brutal, comic, dangerous and frivolous.
Better to stick here to what we have seen from England on the field during their successful campaign to finish top of Pool B, and to what they might and must do next to move on towards winning a second World Cup.
Having been to all of England's matches in Dunedin and Auckland, and watched them train in Queenstown and elsewhere, I find it inconceivable they have the wherewithal to defeat New Zealand at Eden Park. Added to that, I would make South Africa favourites should they face England, and rate the odds on an English win even or marginally against in any meeting with France, Australia, Ireland or Wales.
Not much hope then, eh? Okay, let's borrow the vernacular of the coaches and "concentrate on the positives". Right from when Martin Johnson had the pool draw against Argentina and Scotland land in his lap, his approach has been to find the shortest route to accumulating 20 or so points, nicking a try or two and adding the remainder with kicks.
It is unexcitingly predictable and it is frustrating that Brian Smith - who was hailed as an innovator when he coached London Irish - appears unwilling or unable to produce anything unexpected from the England backline. Perhaps Smith would argue the absence of Riki Flutey or any other playmaking successor to Mike Catt at inside centre has forced his hand. I do not condemn him or Johnson necessarily for not bringing through an Olly Barkley or a Shane Geraghty or AN Other to make merry in a white No.12 jersey. I have seen enough flakiness from Barkley and Geraghty in club matches to believe they would be exposed in Tests. Still there is the lingering anger that we will never know whether another few years of Brian Ashton coaching the backs would have opened the England midfield up to a new horizon.
In the here and now, an awful lot rests on the England fly-half. Though I recall advocating Toby Flood ahead of Jonny Wilkinson in this column at the start of 2010, there are elements of Wilkinson's game in tight matches that are better than Flood's, including an ability to scramble hard yards and compete physically with opposing back rowers in both attack and defence.
Even so, Flood's control alongside fellow replacement Richard Wigglesworth in the closing stages against Scotland last week was compelling. And Johnson's choice for this week's quarter-final with France may be forced anyway by Wilkinson's arm injury. On current form Johnson should go for the mix and match combination I referred to in a more recent column: Wigglesworth, Flood, Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi.
Oh no, not Tindall, I hear you sigh. Okay, what are the alternatives? Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan or moving Tuilagi or Flood to inside centre all have their drawbacks. Thinking back, when England created loads of try-scoring chances in the pre-tournament friendly with Wales (possible semi-final opponents here) they had a midfield of Flood, Hape and Tindall, with Wigglesworth and Danny Care at scrum-half. Not that they finished any of those chances, of course.
Starting slowly has been a problem for England here, though if we stay with the positive thinking, it has not stopped them winning. I had the feeling after 25 minutes of the Scotland win that England felt they had the measure of their opponents. That did not mean they ran away with the match; just that in incidents such as Ben Foden imperiously swivelling out of a Scottish tackle as he tidied up a dangerous counter-attack, they knew they had it in them to win. That kind of belief is priceless, and though Chris Ashton is a weak link defensively - Scotland started well by exploiting his poor positioning with kicks but they could not keep it up - he has great self-confidence in attack.
So England can prosper if Flood and the improving Tuilagi combine to bring Foden and Ashton into the game more. Again, what England will look for against France is a try here or there, not hat-tricks all over the place as against the woeful Romanian second team.
They have half a chance of doing it if the scrummage starts as well against the French as it finished against the Scots, and if the line-out goes well with Tom Croft an invaluable target on the English throw. Defensively, there is an argument to give Tom Palmer the nod to disrupt France, and for Courtney Lawes to be withdrawn to the bench to be an impact player. And though I feel for the big-hearted Lewis Moody as he carries half a ton of sticking plaster around on that knee of his, I think he should be dropped and let Tom Wood start alongside Croft and, at a pinch, James Haskell over Nick Easter.
We have to trust Johnson not to be dumb enough to think "it's a World Cup, it's France, so England are bound to win". He knows intimately from his playing days how to get under the French skin. As manager at Twickenham in 2009 and 2011 his England defeated 'Les Bleus'. In Paris in 2010 the French had the edge, just. The teams look remarkably well matched, in their weaknesses as much as in the "positives". To expect the winners to go on to win the World Cup appears ludicrous but we can at least hope for some sort of a classic on Saturday, and then to see where the momentum of victory takes them.
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