England's much-criticised coaching team, beleaguered and besieged following another deeply disappointing autumn series under Martin Johnson's management, spent much of last month denying that their side were being forced to play the game by numbers, rather than by wit and imagination. Slowly, the truth is emerging. A few days after the Northampton full-back Ben Foden aimed a few well-chosen barbs at the red-rose hierarchy, his club captain, the hooker Dylan Hartley, went public with his views on the "fear factor" aspect of life at Test level.
"I don't feel I'm playing my best rugby for England," the 23-year-old forward said in a radio interview with the BBC. "Some of it might be down to a fear of failure – a case of not being able to relax and not wanting to go outside of the system. There's no right or wrong way to play the game: you do what's asked of you and you don't want to let the coaches down. But when I play for Northampton, I feel confident."
Hartley went on to pin a good deal of blame on himself. "Personally, I need time," he admitted. "It's no easy thing, standing on the touchline in front of 80,000 people, having to throw a ball into a line-out. It's something I have to deal with myself." But by drawing a comparison between the freedom of playing Premiership rugby for Northampton and the more straitjacketed environment widely associated with the current England set-up, he echoed concerns recently expressed by other members of the Test squad.
A little over a week ago, Foden let rip in no uncertain terms. Describing himself as "pretty livid" at being passed over by Johnson and his fellow selectors despite the lack of specialist full-backs in the party, he went on to say: "All I can do is keep playing the best I can for Northampton and hope they will take notice sooner or later. I'm enjoying playing for my club. There is a good atmosphere here and we are encouraged to play running rugby, knowing we won't have our heads bitten off if we make a mistake." Foden also criticised the coaches for a "lack of feedback". By all accounts, there was feedback aplenty once his comments began to circulate.
With Johnson now in All Black country for a recce of accommodation and training facilities ahead of the 2011 World Cup, his immediate boss took the opportunity to defend the autumn performances, which yielded one solitary try, a narrow victory over Argentina and defeats by Australia and New Zealand.
"We have to put things in context," said Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham. "Last weekend, the Pumas beat Scotland, Wales lost badly to the Wallabies and France lost badly to the All Blacks. We have fewer issues to identify and address now than we had this time last year. We made a massive step up in defence, in discipline and at the set-piece. In a nutshell, what we have to work on now is our ability to score tries."
As expected, the All Blacks have named a second-string side to face the Barbarians this weekend at Twickenham. Of the team that routed France in Marseilles last Saturday, only the captain Richie McCaw and the try-scoring back Cory Jane will start the tour finale – and Jane plays at full-back, rather than his favoured wing position.
The Baa-Baas, meanwhile, will be led by the Springbok lock Victor Matfield and feature such notables as Matt Giteau, the Wallaby outside-half, and the brilliant South African scrum-half Fourie du Preez.
Test line-ups for Saturday's match
Barbarians D Mitchell (Australia); J Rokocoko (New Zealand), J Fourie (South Africa), J Roberts (Wales), B Habana (SA); M Giteau (Aus), F du Preez (SA); S Perugini (Italy), B du Plessis (SA), W P Nel (uncapped), C del Fava (It), V Matfield (SA, capt), R Elsom (Aus), S Burger (SA), G Smith (Aus).
Replacements: S Moore (Aus), T Mtawarira (SA), Q Geldenhuys (It), A Powell (Wales), W Genia (Aus), M Steyn (SA), L Halfpenny (Wales).
New Zealand C Jane; B Smith, T Ellison, L McAlister, Z Guildford; S Donald, B Leonard; W Crockett, C Flynn, J Afoa, J Eaton, A Boric, L Messam, R McCaw (capt), R So'oialo.
Replacements: A Hore, N Tialata, A Thomson, T Latimer, J Cowan, M Delany, S Sivivatu.
TV: BBC 1, 14.25-16.30
Referee: C Berdos (Fr)Reuse content