If we are to believe Jack Rowell, the manager, England lost their World Cup semi-final against New Zealand only because of an abysmal start. Moreover, according to Rowell, to have done as well as they have in this tournament represents appreciable progress during the 15 months that he has been in charge. "We have come a long way," he said last night. "I didn't think last year England had a chance of being in the semi-final."
This was not a view the manager was prepared to express, not publicly anyway, when last his players were in Pretoria, and there is an implied criticism of the previous regime headed by Geoff Cooke that England, perennially successful at home, should have been playing a style of rugby so far removed from that required here now. Rowell has always covered his back by stressing he had been given too little time to complete his task.
Will Carling's team remain in the World Cup, because they have a third- place match against France at Loftus Versfeld on Thursday which, quite apart from the matter of healing hurt pride, will have the important corollary of sparing the winners from pre-qualifying for 1999.
But rest assured that by now the defeated semi-finalists would rather have departed. For all the fine talk, for all the endless statements of positive intent, for all the impressive training, and for all the occasionally - but only occasionally - incisive rugby, this time in South Africa they have done no better than last time.
Think back a year, to when they achieved one of the greatest of all English Test victories, trouncing the Springboks 32-15 here in Pretoria. A new dawn? Hardly. The very next Saturday England lost even more heavily than they had won: 27-9. That was at Newlands, graveyard of English aspirations now as then.
Before the second Test Jack Rowell had wondered about his team's capacity to put on repeat performances, to raise their game week by week. Nothing much has changed. England in effect played their World Cup final against Australia nine days ago and gave so much then that there was not enough left when they faced New Zealand.
The shattering defeat by the All Blacks which has condemned them to a week in Pretoria rather than in Johannesburg - if this were just a social trip the former would be the choice every time - has raised questions which would have been just as pertinent but would probably have been left unasked had they made the final.
First there is the personnel of the team. Dewi Morris remains the only definite retiree, though doubts have been raised over Rob Andrew, Dean Richards and even, last night, Carling himself. Brian Moore is reconsidering his decision to finish. In other words, England may yet be able to go forward with almost precisely the same team.
Whether they should is another matter, but the problem Rowell faces - and he too intends pondering his future as manager/coach over the next month or so - is the comparative shortage of adequate successors. Where New Zealand can whistle up Osborne, Lomu, Mehrtens and Kronfeld, England cannot find a single player worthy of even considering to fill Andrew's stand-off boots.
The unfortunate reality is that Mike Catt, lauded as the strike full- back England needed but never used as such in the tournament, is the next in line to Andrew and though Catt prospered there against Western Samoa his form for Bath last season did not indicate an international pivot. In any case, he has informed his club he wishes henceforth to be considered as a full-back.
Talk of clubs brings us to one of England's greatest difficulties, one that was starkly exposed when New Zealand set off in last Sunday's semi- final like greyhounds while England were lumbering around like cart horses. English club rugby, as Rowell said immediately after the match, is an insufficient preparation for international rugby when the opposition is as accomplished as New Zealand.
Last night he returned to the subject: "There is a huge gulf between the pace that we saw on Sunday and the pace at which club rugby in England is played. The style of play is at fault as well: when the pressure comes on and you've got to win, people naturally draw their net closer and play in a limited way."
This perfectly expresses the blinkered thinking of Rowell's England team. They train to play a not dissimilar game to the All Blacks', but out there where it matters the obsession with percentage rugby, with kicking for position before trying anything remotely unpredictable or chancy, is so, well, predictable that the likes of the All Blacks can defend against it all day.
Look, for a contrast, at what happened when England finally yanked off their semi-final straitjacket. Too late it may have been but New Zealand had the utmost trouble withstanding the running game, and on the four occasions England scored tries they actually failed to do so. There is surely a moral there somewhere.
Equally important is for the Rugby Football Union finally to tackle the International Board about its ludicrous tours schedule, which has meant England have not toured New Zealand since 1985 and are not due to go before 1998. Nor had they played Australia before the Cape Town quarter-final since 1991. This is why the RFU has already acted on its own discretion to get the Springboks to Twickenham in November and to bring the Wallabies on a two-Test tour in 1996.
"We have the Five Nations' Championship, which is a cracking contest, but rugby is a global game and if you aspire to be one of the global leaders you need systematically to play the other lead players: South Africa; Australia; New Zealand," Rowell said. This is such a familiar argument that you wonder if it will ever really happen, but this, if ever, is the time.
Plus ca change?
After England had been beaten by Australia in the 1991 World Cup final, Steve Bale wrote this about their style of play:
'Which returns us to a philosophical argument about how to play that goes right back to the Grand Slam defeat in Scotland 18 months ago. This was the point at which England's rugby became introverted and utterly pragmatic, and this is how it remained while a Grand Slam was won and a World Cup final reached.
Then it was realised that a straightforward confrontation would not be enough against the Wallabies and the change, a reversion to type really, was made. I wonder. The England pack gave such a fine performance on Saturday that it might have served them better to keep it tight.
And that, in its turn, shows that whatever they do England cannot win, or rather that they can win only when they are winning...'Reuse content