Tigers coach seething at England's 'negativity'
'There's nothing I have seen that indicates they want to go out and beat teams,' says O'Connor
There have been any number of conflicts between club and country down the years – most of them fought out in the boardroom; at least one on rugby's version of the picket line – and generally speaking, they have been over substance rather than style: the amount of access England coaches should have to international players, and how much money those players should receive from the Twickenham purse. Things changed yesterday when one of the country's leading coaches took a public pot-shot at the men running the national team, accusing them of negativity in the first degree.
Matt O'Connor, the Leicester head coach, reacted sharply to the news that the World Cup midfielder Toby Flood, just back in the England squad after injury, would play no part in Sunday's Six Nations match with France in Paris. He was equally unhappy at the decision of the red-rose coaching team to drop another of his club's highest-profile performers, the scrum-half Ben Youngs, from the starting line-up for the game with Wales a dozen days ago.
"Both of them were outstanding for us against Gloucester last weekend," said O'Connor, who spent his formative rugby years in Canberra and has a reputation for frank and forthright expression that could fairly be described as quintessentially Australian. "They were dangerous, running with the ball and created lots of things for the players around them, but the powers-that-be at England have not fully appreciated what they can offer a team."
This was not the half of it, so to speak. "England don't want creative players, they are just trying not to lose," O'Connor continued. "If that is what they are trying to achieve, you can understand why Flood and Youngs are not the best blokes for the job. But if you are going out there to win a game, it has to be Youngs and Flood at nine and 10. There is nothing I have seen so far to indicate that England want to go out and beat teams. Under the current structure, I cannot see that changing.
"Flood, Youngs, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden have won every big game in which England have beaten the good sides over the last 18 months, but at the moment, you wouldn't know Ashton and Foden are on the field. Those guys, along with Manu Tuilagi, are as good a back line as any in the world, but they never see the ball. That is an issue for the RFU to address. If you are talking about building a side for the World Cup in 2015, you have to go out and play." By way of signing off, he added that his two half-backs were now "asking questions of themselves unnecessarily".
No doubt there will be some who find it amusing that Leicester, of all clubs in the country, should be the source of this outburst: after all, the national team did not exactly trip the light fantastic with their stellar attacking game under the guidance of Martin Johnson, John Wells and the rest of the previous back-room team, the vast majority of whom had strong links with Welford Road. Wisely, the current England hierarchy refused to be drawn into an argument: the interim head coach Stuart Lancaster merely acknowledged that critics were entitled to their opinions, adding that he was most interested in strengthening relationships with the Premiership fraternity.
However, there were responses from the two outside-halves picked ahead of Flood for the impending trip across the Channel. Owen Farrell, who started at No 10 against Wales and made a very decent fist of it, said he and his colleagues in the squad were "massively excited" by the way England are trying to play as the Six Nations unfolds. "I don't think I've ever gone into a rugby game with the mindset of simply trying to avoid defeat," commented the Saracens youngster. "Yes, we have to start finishing the chances we're creating, but we'll gel more as we play more. There's a structure in place, but it's a structure that allows you to be yourself. We're playing rugby the way we want to play it."
The more experienced Charlie Hodgson, who would probably have worn the No 10 shirt against Wales but for injury, could be heard preaching from the same pulpit. "The attacking part of the game is one of the hardest things to get right, especially in a team that has been together only a very short time," he said. "But if you look at where we are now and compare it with where we started against Scotland last month, you'd have to say we've progressed. We're confident that we're doing the right things. Whether or not MattO'Connor agrees with that is entirely down to him."
Still on the subject of half-backs, the France coach Philippe Saint-André took the unusually dramatic step of dropping both of his simultaneously. Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc, who started the drawn game with Ireland last weekend, will have to make do with seats on the bench when England come to town, playing second fiddle to the promoted Stade Français scrum-half Julien Dupuy – a former Leicester player, by coincidence – and the Toulouse outside-half Lionel Beauxis.
Meanwhile, the RFU's search for a full-time coach was again the subject of debate with fresh reports that Jake White, the South African who guided the Springboks to a world title in 2007, was back in the frame, despite his long-term contract in Canberra with the Brumbies. This came as news to an exasperated Brumbies management. "Jake is committed to us: he has made that clear," said the Super 15 franchise's chief executive, Andrew Fagan.
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