No easy fix for England
March 24, 2011
England boss Martin Johnson has plenty of food for thoughts ahead of this year's World Cup © Getty Images
In the end it was a typical Six Nations Championship - plenty of passion fuelled by intense national rivalries , a couple of surprises, a touch of farce (provided by the referees this time round) and a fitting denouement, but ultimately it was short of that one vital ingredient: quality.
England and France both started as if they were going to take the tournament by storm, Wales and Scotland never really got going, Italy showed they are not to be taken lightly and in the end it is Ireland who have emerged from the last couple of months with most credit. They were playing well below par and it looked like being a disastrous Championship until that final performance against England when they produced rugby of real quality and played them off the park.
Grand Slams are never easy - I speak from experience, even when you have a really good side you need a touch of luck - and this England side certainly did not deserve one.
The most worrying thing for Martin Johnson is the way they fall apart if they find themselves in a real battle up front. If they can dominate the set pieces they can create a platform and play some half decent rugby. If they fail in that primary objective they look ordinary beyond belief.
Much has been said over the past weeks about leadership - or the lack of it. Johnson talks about needing leaders all over the park and plays down his own role as captain because he had those players around him.
He claims he has them in this team but there is no evidence of that. In the halcyon days leading up to the 2003 World Cup victory he had three 'captains' in the back row alone. Lawrence Dallaglio would probably been the nominated skipper had it not been for a spot of bother with the News of the World, Richard Hill was the quiet enforcer and Neil Back was always there to lead from the front. Behind the scrum he had the annoying (but very vocal) Matt Dawson and Jonny Wilkinson. There was always somebody ready to take responsibility.
This team has no real leaders. They were unlucky to lose Lewis Moody and Mike Tindall but they are hardly towering figures who command automatic respect - one's a mad dog who has settled down a little, the other would be struggling to hold his place but for the dearth of class in the midfield - cruel, perhaps, but true.
Tom Wood has been a real find and with Courtney Lawes to come back and build on that promising partnership with Tom Palmer England still have the makings of a decent pack. They just need a different mindset. Against the best sides in the world you are not necessarily going to dominate. Sometimes it is an achievement to get parity. England are either rampant or they get bullied as they were against Ireland.
Unfortunately, there is no easy fix for the midfield problems. Shontayne Hape might be big and honest but he cannot do the job - the problem is that there is no obvious alternative and now no chance to bring in new blood. I believe this will prove a fatal weakness in England's World Cup campaign.
What England would give for a Brian O'Driscoll. The man is incredible and I loved the way he immediately flagged up that he has no intentions of retiring after the World Cup when he was being congratulated on his try scoring record after the England match.
'Hopefully, there'll be few more Six Nations' Championships yet,' he said, throwing down the gauntlet to every young pretender. He and Paul O'Connell are a phenomenal leadership team and, while I really don't think it matters a damn who tosses the coin and wears the armband in the England soccer team, in rugby leadership counts.
Ireland started poorly, with senior players like Gordon D'Arcy well off the pace, but they came good at the end and can take more than any other country from this campaign - as long as they have learned the lesson that they have to hit the ground running in September.
The word from within the French camp is that all is now well - I do not believe a word of it - and that the old guard will be quietly moved aside. They still have a group of hugely talented players and should be a force in the World Cup. If they are not the blame lies squarely with the coach.
For the rest it was very much a case of one step forward, two steps back. Wales were ultimately very disappointing but, importantly, have unearthed a couple of decent back-row forwards in Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton. Now, with a decent platform up front there is no excuse for the back division not to perform.
Scotland unexpectedly produced the player of the tournament. Richie Gray was a revelation, huge but wonderfully athletic, a major new talent. Otherwise, they still have the same old problems in finding backs who offer real penetration but Andy Robinson appears to have faith in his youngsters and is no longer prepared to settle for territory which has to be the way ahead.
Italy too are making progress slowly but surely and their victory over France was the high spot of a mediocre tournament. As for the refereeing - we'll leave that for another day.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton pays a visit to Oxford University Women's Rugby Football Club who have recently made headlines across the world, from Tokyo to New York
"Gentlemen, if you want to see the World Cup going south yet again, you are going the right way about it," John Taylor looks at the state of European rugby
The Heineken Cup proved once again just why it is the best domestic rugby competition in the world at the weekend and Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points