Rugby Union: England's basic flaws

Click to follow
DESPITE THE difference in morale between the Welsh and English camps following last weekend's results, I still think England have the best chance of all northern hemisphere countries of winning the World Cup. I'm not saying they will, but they have the capability.

They will have to improve considerably, but they have a huge potential to do so. Wales, on the other hand, are playing to their limit. Their coach, Graham Henry, has been brilliant in making sure that limit is extended from match to match and there is no reason why they shouldn't continue to get better, but it won't help if we let our imaginations run riot.

Henry tries to keep things in perspective and dismisses talk of Wales winning the World Cup as unrealistic. Even if he did believe it, he wouldn't say so because his down-to-earth philosophy is based not on dreams but on what is achievable in the next match.

That's been the pattern of his success - he drives the Welsh team to a performance that inflames the hopes of the nation and then spends the next week putting the fires out. After a big triumph, his policy is to get everybody's feet back on the ground as soon as possible. That is how he has won six games in a row and caused this amazing transformation.

I wouldn't dare to suggest that Clive Woodward should copy him. Each coach must stick hard to his individuality. But there is one aspect of what Henry has taught Wales that England could learn from - and that's the ability to be ruthlessly hard on themselves.

I was critical of England's performance against Australia for several reasons, including their aimless kicking and the poor defence that allowed Ben Tune to score twice in 10 minutes from first-phase possession. These were faults that can be fairly easily put right, but only if they are prepared to confront them honestly.

I was disappointed that the general reaction in the England camp, some media included, was that only a few errors let England down. They had a very good first half-hour and then let it slip with some careless play. In other words, if it wasn't for a few mistakes and an unlucky try against them, England could have won. So it doesn't really matter. That is so typically the British attitude. If we find an excuse for losing, we comfort ourselves that there's not much amiss. And that's why we are still soft as professional rugby countries.

Henry has brought from the southern hemisphere a vastly different and harder approach. He doesn't make excuses. You never hear him complaining that one small lapse caused a defeat, because he knows that, if it cost you the game, it was a big lapse and must never happen again. It is the so-called small things that we tend to shrug off that are the most important.

If you studied the English and Welsh performances last weekend the big difference was less about tactics and fancy game plans than the basic fact that Wales didn't make any mistakes.

The most important lesson the Welsh have learned is how to remain disciplined and composed. The number of unforced errors has been reduced drastically. There was a spell in the Welsh game when they looked as if they might get cut to pieces. They were under far more pressure than England ever were in Sydney, and yet they defended like heroes and made hardly an error.

England defended well, too, for most of the game, but in the 10 minutes before the interval committed basic errors that were to be their downfall. Southern hemisphere sides never see the space that England offered. Their backs must learn to move up in line and drift across and let the full-back and the blindside wing guard against the chip over. It is quite simple, yet England failed to do it twice and Tune thought it was his birthday.

And, don't forget, England had spent a month in training camp before this match. They probably have a book of brilliant game plans, and yet fell down on the elementary stuff. That's where our friends from below the equator beat us every time.

But they won't find Wales so accommodating. Everything under Henry is focused on the basics, and the way the players have responded is an object lesson to the rest of the Five Nations. If England can learn the same lesson, they'll become far more difficult to brush out of the reckoning.