RWC 2015: England’s chaotic finale against Wales should not have mattered

Now Australia will be eager to show their unimaginative hosts the door

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The Independent Online

Looking on the bright side – yes, there is still a glimmer of light out there, albeit faint to the point of invisibility – England have an attacking bonus point that Australia do not possess and can therefore still see a passage into the knock-out stage of their own World Cup. But the route is so rough it makes Cape Horn look like a lily pond. The smart money right now is on Stuart Lancaster’s side being the first hosts in the tournament’s history to bomb out before the quarter-finals.

So, as the fall-out from Saturday night’s 28-25 defeat continues to descend earthwards with ever greater toxicity, let’s look on the dark side, where the reality is to be found. 

England did a number of things right in what was a must-win meeting with Wales – they scrummaged well, they hurt their opponents at the line-out, they scored a beautifully constructed try, their goal-kicking was punishingly accurate – but the things they did wrong were far bigger and more significant. Things like selection and game-management and decision-making.

They have so much previous in all of these areas, the two “Rs” in red rose could equally stand for “rampant recidivism”. And the recidivist to end them all is the captain Chris Robshaw who, for all his many virtues, has a record as long as an orang-utan’s arm when it comes to making questionable calls at the back end of major Test matches when the pressure level is off the scale and the need for clarity of thought is at its most urgent.

If England depart this competition at an embarrassingly early stage, with so much commercial cost and collateral damage attached, rugby folk will talk for ever and a day about the flanker’s spurning of a wide-angled penalty shot deep in the final five minutes – a kick the impeccably accurate Owen Farrell would in all likelihood have nailed to earn his side a draw. The “go for broke” line-out option taken by Robshaw had the words “high” and “risk” written all over it and the nonsense was compounded when Rob Webber threw to the front, thereby giving the Welsh forwards the best possible chance of neutralising the threat.

“You have to stop those line-out drives quickly, or you don’t stop them at all,” said Alun Wyn Jones, the outstanding Wales lock and one of the three or four most influential players on the pitch. “We put all our eggs in one basket and happened to hit it right. I guess it helped that the maul was so tight to the touch-line.”

Yet there was more to England’s failure than one piece of muddled thinking and a set-piece botch-up. Having squeezed the pips out of the Welsh front-rowers at the scrum – Joe Marler and Dan Cole, some way short of brilliant over the course of the pre-tournament warm-up games and miles off their best in the opening-night contest with Fiji, rediscovered their close-quarter mojo against the old enemy – it beggared belief that the home side failed to build a winning lead long before the chaotic last knockings.

 

The try constructed by the backs early in the second quarter was sugar-sweet both in its planning and its execution: Anthony Watson’s roaming intervention far from his wing, Mike Brown’s football skills and Ben Youngs’ sharp blind-side snipe gave Jonny May the time and space to finish in style. But there was nothing much else to England’s attacking game. Why? Because the midfield was a defensive construct pure and simple – a combination featuring a relatively conservative outside-half (Farrell), an up-and-downer of an inside centre playing out of position in the No 13 channel (Brad Barritt) and a No 12 labouring under such mind-boggling limitations it was barely possible to run any kind of passing move through him.

We’re talking in the last instance of Sam Burgess, whose skill set does not begin to meet the demands of the role at international level. Yes, he tackled hard – brutally hard at times. Yes, he carried the ball strongly, if no more productively than a dozen other inside centres in this tournament. But he gives no shape to the midfield attack, appears barely capable of playing the kind of part his opposite number Jamie Roberts performed in the build-up to the brilliant try scored by Gareth Davies after 70 minutes, and cannot kick for love nor money. He tried it twice and reduced the crowd to tears in the process. Tears of misery in the case of the England supporters, tears of laughter in the case of the red-shirted hordes from west of the Severn.

Wales were undeniably heroic in eating into 10-point deficits – not once or twice, but three times over the course of a transfixingly tight and physical contest. Toby Faletau played one hell of a hand at No 8, not least when injuries to Hallam Amos and the two Williamses, Scott and Liam, left the visitors with a scrum-half on the wing, a wing at centre and an outside-half at full-back. As for Jones and his fellow Osprey, the playmaker and goal-kicker Dan Biggar… their performances were the stuff of myth and fable.

“Back in the day, Dan was getting booed by his own supporters,” said the lock of his clubmate, with whom he goes back a very long way. “They thought he was an insolent bugger. Me, I think that’s one of his best qualities. And when he had what turned out to be the winning kick on halfway, I knew from all the time I’ve spent with him that he had the range. Sometimes, I think it’s a pleasure to play with him.”

Biggar was a star turn, for sure, but he was helped by England’s predictability. If the visitors saw straight through the hosts’ attacking game, it was because there was nothing of substance there. And if a depleted Wales can do it, there is no knowing how comfortable a side as good as the Wallabies will feel in the face of such one-dimensional, contact-based, unimaginative rugby. England need to get modern. Fast.

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