England failing the skills test

The first month of rugby union's new era has been a poor one for the spectator, with barely a game worth shouting about. Steve Bale reports
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It is probably too soon to judge, it may even be an illusion, but on the evidence of the season so far impartial observers are in agreement: the standard of club rugby in England is depressingly low.

A year ago, with the World Cup to look forward to, we were celebrating the club game's new age of ambition. Now we seem to be locked into a cycle of attritional rugby which, although it may be good enough for the English First Division, is never good enough to put upon a world stage.

As it happened, last season degenerated so badly from its promising beginnings that it really was better to travel hopefully than to arrive at the World Cup, from which everyone came home saying the Courage Championship was totally inadequate as preparation for England sides.

By the common consent of coaches, who just possibly have a vested interest in saying so, players are trying to play fluid rugby but - also by common consent - are being prevented from doing so by their own inadequacy and intractable refereeing. OK, there have been some good games - Bristol v Harlequins comes to mind - but somehow most of us seem to have missed them.

"Are the clubs trying?" Mark Evans, coach of the promoted Saracens, asks. "Probably a number are. Are they being successful? Only marginally. Why? Either a lack of skill or the way some officials officiate, or probably a mixture of both. To be fair, the rugby correspondents tend on the whole to see the big pressure games which tend to be the least attractive."

True enough, but is that not an indictment of the leading clubs? If players cannot cope with the pressures of games at the top of the First Division, this afternoon's between Wasps and Bath at Sudbury being a timely example, how can they be expected to cope playing for England against New Zealand?

"My view is that in England we somehow have to invent a better game between us all," Jack Rowell, the England manager, said. "A lot of the responsibility falls on referees: can we develop a game of movement where we stop it only for the right reasons?"

This is a philosophical point which draws an unflattering distinction between refereeing in the spirit of running rugby, as practised in the southern hemisphere, and refereeing to the letter of the laws, as is the accusation of many coaches here.

So on the one hand Rowell was this week chiding Steve Griffiths, the Rugby Football Union's referees' officer, that his officials were not doing enough to prevent the various forms of persistent offside which would terminally stifle any game. And on the other he is fed up with the counterproductive pedantry which focuses on other, less heinous offences.

This can appear to mean picking and choosing which laws you fancy, but if it produces a better form of rugby - witness the recent Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand - so be it. Down under, they have never been hung up on the rule of rugby law and their game is the better for it.

In its absence, however, there is frustration. The Wasps coach, Rob Smith, the great apostle of rugby in perpetual motion, said: "Skill levels are nowhere near good enough, but at the moment we're not even testing our skill levels because of how often the game is stopped.

"The fact is that people have genuinely been trying to use the ball more - but that's not the same thing as playing an expansive game. It's not just as simple as saying let's use the backs. The games in South Africa and New Zealand are very structured and highly mobile but do not involve just chucking the ball around for the sake of it. By contrast, we have an awfully long way to go."

In other words, we in this part of the world have effectively cut ourselves off from forward rugby thinking. Just as the RFU insisted to the bitter end on sticking by every last full-stop and comma of amateurism, so now many of its referees - fearful perhaps of the judgement of the assessors who follow them everywhere - dare not abandon their own party-line.

"We need to introduce more pace into our game, and our referees can help in that," Rowell said. "Club matches are very intense but they are not always pacy, and going from that on to the international field against full-time players who are playing provincial rugby and Super 12 really is a giant stride."

In other words, England have somehow to find a way of emulating New Zealand methods - which, as Brian Hanlon of Bristol points out, is easier said than done. "All the clubs are trying to come to terms with the more dynamic rugby the national selectors are requiring, but it's no good trying to play like New Zealanders if your skills aren't good enough."

Usefully Hanlon, the club's coaching co-ordinator, is himself a New Zealander so should know what he is talking about. But again it is not only the players but the poor old referees who get his blame. As Hanlon puts it: "The referee is the dominant player in English rugby far too often."

And therefore not the players, who will simply have to work harder than ever before to get themselves and their rugby in adequate shape both to face the world and overcome the obsessive attentions of their own refs.

"In New Zealand all the skill work is done in the summer: touch football two or three times a week from props through to full-backs," Hanlon said. "But in New Zealand it's a culture whereas here it's not. You can't change that, you can't expect England to become a rugby culture overnight."

But you can expect England to maximise what it has - which appears to mean acquainting players with the wider world of refereeing interpretations before players have to go to New Zealand and South Africa, however well England may do in home one-offs such as next month's against the Springboks.

The trouble is pedantry here is as far removed as you can get from the laissez-faire of the southern hemisphere and until that changes British, specifically English, players will be at a self-inflicted disadvantage. "We are taking an unrealistic stance with the rest of the world," Rob Smith said. "We are training people for the jungle by sending them to Mothercare."