Rugby World Cup: Five things England have to work on – and fast – after that Italy debacle

Confidence-wrecker or wake-up call – Dave Hadfield considers how Steve McNamara’s men can make the best of a pre-World Cup shock

1 They must pick up their morale from a very low place

The utterly unexpected 15-14 defeat by the novices of Italy will have left England psychologically scarred before they start their World Cup campaign against Australia on Saturday.

Much has been made of the thoroughness of their preparation: that looked like so much wasted effort at the Salford City Stadium on Saturday. All the confidence which had been built up within the squad is in danger of draining away.

This sort of situation is not unprecedented. At the start of the 1990 Lions tour, a Great Britain team including Jonathan Davies and Garry Schofield lost 20-18 to Papua New Guinea in the rarefied atmosphere of the Highlands town of Goroka. That same year, a very average France side beat them 25-18 at Headingley – one of the worst British performances in living memory.

But for a comparable humiliation to Saturday night, you have to look to a match Great Britain won, scraping home 10-6 against the Australian junior club Burleigh Bears at the start of the 1999 tour. In terms of the effect it had on the squad’s morale and reputation, that was the previous low-water mark.

2 They should promote Hardaker from the Knights

With a 24-man squad to choose from, Steve McNamara’s room for manoeuvre is very limited. You could say that he took his big decision over a year ago, when he opted not to involve Danny Brough, without doubt the best English-born scrum-half in Super League, but captaining Scotland in this tournament. For the game against Australia on Saturday, he will have Ben Westwood back after suspension and, hopefully, Sean O’Loughlin back from nursing his sore hamstring. Both will be straight back in the team if available.

 The player who really enhanced his reputation on Saturday was Zak Hardaker, playing in his original position of centre for the England Knights against Samoa. In its way, the English second string’s 52-16 win over the islanders was as stunning a result as Italy’s win – or the United States’ over France – and the Leeds player stood out.

So did Wigan’s Jack Hughes, with his three second-half tries. It would be too much of a knee-jerk reaction to draft him into the senior squad now, but Hardaker is a different matter. Bring him in at full-back and switch Sam Tomkins to the halves, perhaps? It won’t happen, but maybe it should.

3 They must bring in some creativity in the half-backs

Debate has already been raging for months over the pair of half-backs England should put on the field and it will increase in intensity right up to kick-off time in Cardiff. McNamara seems firmly wedded to a combination of Rangi Chase and Kevin Sinfield, but they did nothing to justify his faith on Saturday. There was no spark of creativity to be seen from them, despite the clear evidence of the last domestic season that both can dominate a game.

 McNamara has backed himself into a corner by making Sinfield captain, however good he is in that role at Leeds. Without pulling down the castle and starting again, that means he has to play.

Again, the options to play alongside him are limited. The coach has always seemed lukewarm about Gareth Widdop, although he is one of the better stand-offs in Australia’s NRL.That leaves Rob Burrow, whose close-to-the-ground running can disrupt any defence. He seems firmly cast in the role of an impact substitute, however.

4 They must defend their line and make their tackles

There was nothing clever about Italy’s two first-half tries. Both were scored through lunges at the line which were not countered by alert and committed enough defence. Some tries in rugby league are scored by individual brilliance or team excellence – or sometimes dumb luck – and it can be hard to define how they could have been prevented. Not so on Saturday: they could have been averted by simply making their tackles.

McNamara is right to call them “the worst sort of tries to concede.” A basic requirement of rugby league is that you defend your line as though your life depends upon it. We didn’t see that at Salford and, if we don’t see it at Cardiff, it could get very messy indeed.

5 They must keep their cool and button their lips

Sam Burgess is a tremendously imposing and destructive forward: that is why he has taken the NRL by storm over the last few seasons. But, as anyone who has watched – and listened – to miked-up NRL matches will testify, he has far too much to say for himself on the pitch. He was at it again on Saturday, in a game where England could not afford to concede cheap penalties for dissent. If, by some miracle, England are close to the Aussies in Cardiff, the last thing we need is for him to start mouthing off. The Australian forwards, of course, know him well enough to be aware how to wind him up.

Westwood, fine forward though he is, can hardly be accused of improving England’s discipline when he comes into the team after his punching ban. And then there’s Gareth Hock, simmering away on the back-burner. It does not sound like a recipe for winning the penalty count in a match where England will need to extract every advantage they can.