RWC 2015: Owen Farrell should have been in Chris Robshaw’s face to kick penalty for England

The decision to go for the win backfired terribly for the hosts

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Wasn’t there something in the Red Book? The Big Red Book – A4, hardback – which Stuart Lancaster carries around with him everywhere in camp and where you will see every inflection of thought and planning which enters his head. 

The England head coach told us a few weeks ago that it contained “future commitments”, and that has a rather grim ring about it this morning. All the scenario planning self-evidently did not extend to what might happen if England were to be presented with a penalty as they trailed Wales by three points in one of the last plays of a World Cup match where the winner takes all and the loser takes away only the enormity of what has befallen them.

The red-rose players drifting away from Twickenham on Saturday night declared, to a man, that you can’t plan for the moment when Chris Robshaw opted to dispense with a penalty kick and instead forge ahead for the line-out which saw his team-mates bundled into touch, all hope gone.

“It comes down to a lot of the feeling on the pitch at the time,” Owen Farrell said in response to the notion that there might be advance planning for something like this. “You can’t sit down and talk about it off the field when you have not got a feel for the game or a sense of what’s been happening throughout the game and so on...” 

Yet the decisions taken as the clock ticked into its 78th minute on Saturday were so monumentally flawed that you wondered whether the information Lancaster grinds into them has not scrambled minds and clouded capacity for clear thought. 

 

The dilemma Robshaw was confronted with did not belong to that long list of freak occurrences which can afflict any side, when all’s said and done. We’ve been here twice before, watching the England captain confronted with this type of decision, and twice before we’ve seen it all turn to ashes. 

It was in the autumn of 2012, when England lost 20-14 to Australia, that he repeatedly allowed Toby Flood to kick for touch in the final minutes instead of taking a shot at goal. It was the following week that England lost to South Africa by a single point and Robshaw took the low road, opting  for the penalty option and watching South Africa run down time. 

Somewhere in the A4 armoury of pre-calculations, it does not seem unreasonable to wonder why, before a game never likely to be decided by more than a thin scattering of points, there had not been some prior discussion. Sir Clive Woodward was not joking when he predicted in Saturday’s Daily Mail that the game would be decided – in England’s favour – by a penalty. Martin Castrogiovanni predicted a draw.

The absence of any prior anticipation contributed to Robshaw making a decision which, bluntly, was catastrophic: kicking for touch when the draw three points would have yielded was a better outcome for England, with their bonus point collected against the Fijians, than for the Welsh, who on Thursday face a Pacific Islands side who have targeted Warren Gatland’s players as their breakthrough game, on the back of eight days’ rest. The BBC yesterday reported that Lancaster had screamed to Robshaw to instruct Owen Farrell to aim for the posts.

Lancaster offered Robshaw precious little protection – “It was a big call to go for the corner; if you go there you have to nail it” – though Robshaw is not the only Englishman who finds his reputation damaged today. So, too, does the individual Lancaster had so boldly selected for this occasion on the basis of his dead eye from the kicking tee. 

That man is Owen Farrell, who kicked with such ice in his veins on Saturday night that you struggle to comprehend why he – the scrapping street-fighter, as capable as any who walks these shores to stare down those posts – was not in Robshaw’s face, demanding he be permitted to employ that right silver boot of his to kick the nation back to parity. 

That Farrell was at least the second most authoritative individual in the six-man huddle – which the TV cameras captured, in the bottom corner of the screen, as Wales contemplated the enormity of their last infringement – was made clear yesterday by Lancaster. “Ultimately, it always comes down to the goal-kicker and the captain really,” the coach said. 

But Farrell’s reflections on those febrile moments, before he left Twickenham, revealed a man who was either dissembling to protect his captain or who, in the heat of the moment, had simply not fancied putting himself and his reputation on the line. He dodged several times the question of whether he had urged Robshaw to let him take the kick and then, in the vocabulary of his answer, something subtly significant materialised.

Describing their rapid deliberations, Farrell said: “We just said… obviously it [the kick] was on the touchline.” Robshaw had just hinted at the same. “If it’s an easier kick you look at your options, don’t you? But it wasn’t,” he said. Tom Wood’s testimony today underlines that the degree of difficulty was the biggest consideration for England – exploding the suggestion that they took the bold route by aiming for the try-line, Japan-style. 

“Had it been 10 or 15 metres further infield we would certainly have gone for the points,” Wood said. “The fact that it was on the touchline was the deciding factor. We didn’t feel it was the percentage shot at goal. We backed ourselves as a forward pack to take them on and they stood firm. Fair play to them.”

Many of the wise heads who had watched Farrell’s night of metronomic kicking were astonished by the decision. Instead, England went for a line-out which ended with Wales barging them into touch. 

In their infinite wisdom, England went for a short line-out training ground routine, when a longer throw would have eradicated the threat of Wales bundling them out of the picture. “That was one we had up our sleeve but we perhaps should have recognised the threat,” Wood said.

 

Lancaster did not disguise the flawed thinking when it came to the line-out strategy. “In hindsight, yeah! Because obviously we got banged into touch,” he said. “Again that’s one for us to discuss and debate when we get to it with the players.” 

Their World Cup is not over. This might be the catalyst for a display against Australia in keeping with what we have been told to expect. But England look like a side who, having discussed and debated the game to death, need to breathe the fresh air of common sense.

Comments