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Steve Deane: English trudge back to drawing board

Woe is England. At least it was, and probably still is, despite their second-half fightback against the Kangaroos in Wigan yesterday.

At 26-0 down with just 32 minutes gone, it looked like it was back to the drawing board yet again for a nation that specialises in sporting retreat.

In league, in particular, England find themselves retracing their steps back to the architect's desk so often their players and coaches resemble penguins heading back to the sea after the breeding season. It's instinctual - a good shafting followed by a steady head-down trudge back to exactly where they came from.

The problem isn't finding the way back. It's what they find when they get there. To appropriate a Rowan Atkinson line, England's frequent, fruitless searches for the league plot resemble a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn't there.

As for continually going back to it, it's the bleeding drawing board where they usually get themselves in a pickle in the first place.

Tony Smith is a fine coach, but pitting a right-sided defensive unit of Danny McGuire, Lee Smith and rookie Tom Briscoe against Jonathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and Brett Morris scaled new heights in optimism. Wing Briscoe is barely out of diapers, Wasps-bound Smith is a real talent at fullback or wing but a lost sheep in the centres, while McGuire is just a sheep.

No wonder it was lambs to the slaughter. All five Kangaroos' tries went down the channel patrolled by the lightweight English trio. Inglis looked like a fully grown man who had somehow snuck into a schoolboy game.

Coach Smith fixed part of the problem at halftime by hooking Briscoe, exiling Lee Smith to the wing and inserting the excellent Kyle Eastmond to help cover for McGuire, but by then the damage was done.

It was hard not to feel sorry for the rest of the English team as they toiled away only to watch the Roos score every time they shifted the ball left. The 16-0 second half in England's favour raised the question of what might have been if the coach had reacted earlier to the car crash that was unfolding in front of him.

And it did at least show that England aren't the complete no-hopers they appeared to be for the first 30 minutes.

At halftime BBC commentator Dave Woods was moved to put things in perspective by describing the Kangaroos as "quite possibly the best rugby team in either code ever assembled". Instead of booing their side off at halftime the England fans should have been "standing on their seats" applauding the genius of the Australians.

Well, in fairness, the English fans would have only been emulating their players, who had been doing pretty much exactly that for the first 40 minutes.

Luckily, England's second half revival meant Woods was able to put away his grandiose chivalry and turn his musings to how well England would do in the rematch in a fortnight's time.

The English were, Woods pointed out as Inglis ran 80m for a try, still just one win away from making the final.

No one does misplaced optimism quite like the English, although Souths-bound forward Sam Burgess was superb, as was Eastmond. And Eorl Crabtree, a player who will seemingly never play a match without someone remarking his father was a pro wrestler called Big Daddy, rattled a few Roos cages as England won the forward battle in the second half.

There was more than enough there to suggest the Kiwis will have a decent job on their hands in Huddersfield this weekend. But if they are to compete with a Kiwis side that ruthlessly demolished the brave French by working them over straight up the middle until their hearts and legs gave out, England must say goodbye to their weakest link - McGuire.

In baseball parlance, the Leeds five-eighth is a AAA+ player - great at the level just below the big time, but not good enough for the major leagues. McGuire is a poor defender and his skills crumble under pressure.

The Kiwis will be hoping he plays. Eastmond, looks a much more complete player, and must surely be given his chance from the outset.

As for the Kiwis, they will be looking at their French sojourn as a case of job done. The French showed up better than expected, controlling the ball well and tackling tenaciously for the first 40 minutes, but the Kiwis' stuck to their task and eventually ground them into the turf.

There's not a lot of mystery in the Kiwis' approach. Big men bash away one-out and fight for quick play-the-balls, little men scoot out of dummy half. When it's on, give the ball to Benji.

The Poms certainly know what's coming - and they'll have plans aplenty to deal with it.

Sourced from: The New Zealand Herald