Wales v England, Six Nations Championship, February 14
Reports of the death of English rugby have been greatly exaggerated
February 14, 2009
England's Paul Sackey and Phil Vickery attempt to shackle Wales' Lee Byrne © Getty Images
England may well have suffered a fatal blow to their Six Nations title challenge with defeat the Millennium Stadium but there was plenty of reason for hope following a gutsy and praise-worthy display.
Many had predicted a St Valentines Day massacre in Cardiff with the doomsayers rounding on Martin Johnson's side, accusing them of lacking direction and team spirit. Crushing defeats at the hands of the southern hemisphere giants last year and a lacklustre showing against Italy in their Six Nations opener had the critics lining up to take a shot but reports of the death of English rugby have been greatly exaggerated.
Stung by the harsh words of amongst others former England skipper Lawrence Dallaglio, England's current crop restored some pride to the rose that adorns their shirt by pushing Wales to the limit. Johnson and his coaches too, restored our faith that they are the men to guide this generation with an astute game plan that at times shackled the northern hemisphere's best side.
A key component in that tactical approach was flanker Joe Worsley. Only last month the Wasps stalwart was packed off to the England Saxons only to earn a reprieve as injuries ravaged England's backrow resources. Another promotion followed this week as he was selected to make his first England start for 18 months - not in his normal blindside position but that of openside. But we needn't have questioned the thinking behind the decision - Johnson, and perhaps more tellingly defensive coach Mike Ford, knew what they were doing.
He was recruited as a hit man but rather than a Tommy gun in a violin case he would be using his body. He job was to stop the likes of Wales centre Jamie Roberts and No.8 Andy Powell rampaging into the heart of the England defence and a tackle tally of 14 (it was surely more?) is evidence of his endeavour. If you re-watch the game plot Worsley's progress and watch him tackle himself into the ground all over the park.
Fly-half Andy Goode and centre Riki Flutey also offered further evidence to their critics with eye-catching displays. Goode showed an attacking edge to his game so often over-looked while Flutey had his best game in an England shirt.
But let us not forget that England still came up short despite raising their game significantly against a side that were wholly deserving of their win. Losing to this Wales side is no disgrace. Their Grand Slam triumph of 12 months ago may have surprised some but they are on the verge of greatness with just three victories between them and an historic back-to-back success.
Their ability to ride the loss of IRB Player of the Year Shane Williams is commendable. No doubt he would have given England a headache but Wales are so much more than a one-man team. They are blessed with talent from 1 to 15 with the likes of prop Gethin Jenkins, lock Alun-Wyn Jones, flankers Martyn Williams and Ryan Jones, Powell, fly-half Stephen Jones, Roberts and fullback Lee Byrne and other all surely South Africa-bound with the Lions this summer. What would they give for a shot at a Rugby World Cup this year instead?
The discipline of his side remains a major problem for Johnson although there may be some evidence to suggest England's card is currently marked amongst officials. His openly stated ploy to slow the game down will not be repeated. A total of 20 minutes playing with 14-men is always going to take its toll and it is clear that the problem has still not been addressed. In the end it surely comes down to the individual.
England were also slow out of the blocks and for an alarming few minutes looked daunted by the occasion and their opponents - as if lacking in confidence in themselves and maybe even their gameplan.
Johnson's own reputation will have been furthered amongst his international peers. Those who may have doubted his management expertise need only look at how he handled a testing week for his side and conjured such a re-vitalised performance from both his coaches and players.
Perhaps we can take heart from the fact that England do actually know where they are going and those leading them know the best way to get there. But they are far from the finished article and this latest improvement will be forgotten should England take a backward step against Ireland in Dublin next time.
"The fans could not be happier with the opposition and it adds an exciting element to a game that is shaping up as a thriller." Ben Kay previews the Premiership final showdown
"If there was a cross breed of canine called an Underdogdoodle it would win best in show at Crufts." Mark Durden-Smith looks at the Aviva Premiership Final
With the Lions' tour to Australia fast-approaching, ESPN's Austin Healey and Mark Durden-Smith sat down to share their memories of the 2001 trip Down Under
Ask John answers questions on the Leopards' tour to Italy in 1974, brotherly Test sides, Pat McGrath, England's games against the Barbarians and Jacques Brunel