England grappling with negativity
February 11, 2009
Danny Cipriani is out in the cold as England go for slow and steady at fly-half © Getty Images
The last two Wales v England matches in Cardiff suggest this Saturday's tumultuous clash between the bitterest of rugby enemies (sorry, Scotland) will be fairly close with the Welsh coming out on top, but some soothsayers see a spanking on the cards for those wearing white jerseys.
On the other hand, it is possible to find a parallel in another fixture not so long ago: the Australia v England quarter-final in the 2007 World Cup when the Wallabies' backs played some beautiful, intuitive, searing rugby - but England won because their pack stuffed their opposite numbers. Hey, it could happen!
Who is to say what's right and what's wrong? There wouldn't be many supporters returning home over the Severn Bridge after a 3-0 England win worrying too much about how it was achieved. All we can do here is have a bit of fun trying to make sense of it all.
Sometimes this really is very simple. A coach, for instance, may put a flanker at scrum-half, light the blue touch paper and wait for the implosion. Nick Mallett, what were you thinking of? Or you could listen to and read a multitude of opinions as to why England are currently disappearing up their own backside, and still find it tough to make head or tail of it.
It may be that Martin Johnson, secretly, is targeting England's three home matches in the Six Nations - all eminently winnable - as a base to move on from as his managing reign continues. Do not forget, Johnson is a wise old bird, even if Sir Clive Woodward has pinpointed his lack of familiarity with the "chess" game of Test rugby, off the field.
Okay, it seems unlikely Johnno would "throw" the Wales match, and that's not really the suggestion here. But in his heart of hearts he may accept that three wins from five would be an adequate first Six Nations for him as manager.
After all, if Johnson really was going for broke, and a Grand Slam, then what is he doing at fly-half? We have looked at this position before in this column, during the November internationals, when there were questions over the way Danny Cipriani's comeback after his injury was handled. He was thrown in to what would obviously be a demanding series of autumn Tests when his club form was not good and he couldn't get through a match without slamming his foot into the turf to relieve the ache in his pinned-together ankle.
Sure enough, Cipriani was dropped for the final Test, thus ruining the plan to have a four-match run in a settled team. Then, just as he appeared to be recovering some form for Wasps in January, Cipriani was chosen to play for the England Saxons against Ireland 'A', rather than resume in the Test arena in the easiest of England's Six Nations fixtures at home to Italy.
It was difficult to follow this or, more accurately, to follow any train of positive thinking in this. Negative thinking? Oh yes. Maybe the management expected Andy Goode to be only moderate against Italy, heralding the recall of Cipriani against Wales. But why would the management anticipate a moderate performance against Italy?
Okay, then, looking on the bright side of life, perhaps they thought Goode would play a blinder against Italy, and Cipriani likewise against Ireland A, giving the coaches a full hand to play with against Wales. Again, the logical extension of that would be that Cipriani should have started against Italy. Only if the coaches expected Cipriani still to be struggling on Saxons duty, would the thing make sense. Oh Danny boy…
Negative thinking. The ever-present leg-iron attached to English sport. Start out from a point of worrying what might go wrong and take it from there. England have three outstanding footballing backs at the moment - Mathew Tait, James Simpson-Daniel and Shane Geraghty - and it's all they can do to get one of them on the field, never mind all three.
Danny Cipriani and Delon Armitage deserve to be considered in the same category. Three, four or maybe even all five of them should have started against Italy. For goodness' sake, England had played Italy 14 times before last Saturday and won the lot. Yes, the Azzurri forwards are good but they are not superhuman.
Any half clued-up England pack should have earned at least parity with them (as indeed they did) to give the backs the chance to do their stuff. But negative thinking took over and instead we saw Goode kicking, while Armitage hardly had a touch and the poor old Twickenham crowd amused themselves with multiple Mexican waves.
This weekend England will be meeting a side which thinks positively. And yet, and yet, having written all that, the point we began with holds true. There is nothing here to say Wales are right and England are wrong and nothing to guarantee that Wales will win and England will lose. England and Johnson would argue they do have positive intent, they just express it in a different way.
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