Hodgson's problems are minor glitch for red rose team learning new tricks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Having overdosed on victory for so long, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Twickenham was in need of detox. However, the extent of the dependence was still troubling. Defeat sometimes cleanses the spirit and clears the mind. Here on Saturday, we saw something rather different. We saw what can happen when perspective is lost.

Having overdosed on victory for so long, it shouldn't have been a surprise that Twickenham was in need of detox. However, the extent of the dependence was still troubling. Defeat sometimes cleanses the spirit and clears the mind. Here on Saturday, we saw something rather different. We saw what can happen when perspective is lost.

In one corner of the ground Jonny Wilkinson, safe from reproach, was signing autographs. In another, Charlie Hodgson's face said he was wondering whether he had scrawled something rather different: perhaps his own death warrant as a viable challenger to the Wilko cult.

He certainly had to consider the possibility that if a week in politics is a long time, the taut seconds it takes to line up and miss a kick at Twickenham can unquestionably change your life. Do that twice, when the Australians are at your throat and screaming their disdain, and you may well be looking at not so much regret as oblivion. In Hodgson's case, though, most aficionados of the game would have to agree it would be a grievous pity.

Naturally, the player kept any such fears to himself, saying: "I've been happy with the last three weeks. My confidence has been boosted and I know I'll come back a better player for what happened today." Maybe, maybe not, but one thing is beyond dispute: Hodgson is too gifted, and too intuitive, a player to be branded a failure at this early point of his international exposure.

You could say pretty much the same of Andy Robinson's re-formed England. Though headquarters reeked of scapegoatism, with Hodgson inevitably on top of the list for his failure of nerve with those two penalty kicks in the first half, the new coach was drawing his own considerable ration of flak: why did he pull off Henry Paul, England's only other recognised goal-kicker, with so much of the game to be played? Because, said Robinson in so many words, the talented Paul had done nothing so much as stake out his own patch of rugby hell; porous in defence, butter-fingered in attack, he made the sight of Will Greenwood languishing on the bench seem like the last word in squandered resources. Robinson was bullish in his own defence, and he was right to be so. These are the early days of a new England and if losing to Australia is one of the supreme pains of the competitive life, it is also bound to happen from time to time.

This is especially so if someone like Matt Giteau steps up at the age of 22 to announce himself as one of the great players. His work with the ball was stunning. He moved up to outside-half in place of the injured Elton Flatley with all that facility wonderfully intact and when it came to killing off the England resurrection with two nerveless penalty kicks his confidence filled every corner of the stadium. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" died like a jingle at a funeral.

Yet if England were beaten - and ultimately by the better, more resilient side - any rush to lasting judgement is palpably absurd, and also forgetful of the long and hazardous journey made by Robinson's predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, on the way to World Cup victory at the Telstra Stadium a year ago. Woodward, despite the victory over a potentially brilliant French team in the semi-final, was charged with ownership of a powerful but limited and ageing team, one without the range of tactics - and versatility - necessary to deliver the great prize.

Such a verdict, we should also not forget, came four years after ejection from a World Cup in which Woodward had said he should be judged.

In the last three weeks England's rugby has surely earned a fair measure of the patience which accompanied Woodward's team all the way to final victory. The justice of this is surely reinforced by the briefest understanding of Woodward's legacy. The former leader indeed made it to the mountain top but he couldn't stop the ageing process - or the effects of celebrity and triumphalism. The last two elements couldn't be talked away - they had to be hosed down.

Now, that work has been completed by the enduring instinct of the Aussies to find a way to win. This capacity surfaced so strongly on Saturday, certain truths were lost in the great inquest.

The most important one was that England had done the opposite of falling apart. In a second half of superb application, they wiped out a 15-point lead with brilliant mauling and some genuine invention behind the scrum. Three tries in 16 minutes were not the work of a team going nowhere.

Mark Cueto's try was something to recall and savour when the smoke had cleared. So, too, were a couple of runs by the temporary but inflamed captain, Jason Robinson, and if the post-match spotlight playing so harshly on Hodgson was unavoidable, it should not have missed out some of his more beautiful - and biting - movement with the ball in his hands.

Andy Robinson bridled under some of the closer questioning of his decision to leave himself without a back-up kicker, but you could hardly question his belief that his team had finally produced both some outstanding rugby and a winning position.

That the win disappeared is at this point in the regime far less important than what Robinson and his cadre of coaches can make of the defeat. They can say that the most crucial part of any team's education is to find a way to win however unpromising the circumstances. It took Woodward two World Cups and a lot of pain to implant the message. Eddie Jones, the coach who lost last year's final but has now gained two slices of revenge, has of course been able to take a shorter route. He simply had to find that mislaid Australian birthright.

Comments