Brian Ashton: England need to get on the Aussies' wavelength

Tackling the issues: The really striking thing about the Wallabies was their ability to operate together
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Argentina secured a famous victory when they last visited Twickenham in 2006 – I remember it distinctly, having been part of the England coaching team at the time – and when they make their return visit this afternoon, they will again pose certain dangers. Most of the perils will be concentrated in their forward pack, which is rightly considered to be one of the most formidable in the international game – but to my way of thinking, the most intriguing thing about the South Americans will be their approach away from the more static phases of play.

It may be that they won't have much of an approach at all – that they will adopt the kind of heavy-hitting, no-frills strategy that has paid them dividends down the years. After all, they have lost their two principal midfield decision-makers, Juan Martin Hernandez and the profoundly accomplished Felipe Contepomi, and no longer have that wonderful little scrum-half general Agustin Pichot to look to for inspiration. But one of these fine days, I'm convinced they will take everyone by surprise with a performance of genuine adventure and leave us all saying to ourselves: "Crikey, where did THAT come from?"

From the Argentine perspective, the injuries affecting Hernandez and Contepomi must be deeply disappointing. We saw the impact a well-organised, properly connected unit at scrum-half, outside-half and inside centre can have when the Wallabies won in London last week. I sang the praises of Matt Giteau on the morning of the match (you don't need to be a rugby genius to realise what an exceptional talent he is) but the quality of performances delivered by Will Genia and Quade Cooper were less easy to foresee. I was particularly impressed by Cooper, who constantly asked questions of the England midfield, both with his deceptive footwork and his level of awareness.

The really striking thing about the Wallabies was their ability to operate together. I can't imagine the midfielders based themselves on the Ella brothers of the 1980s – they're far too young – but nevertheless, there were hints and echoes for those of us old enough to remember those marvellous Australian brothers working in unison. The important word there is the last one. The more I study the creative aspects of midfield play, the more I realise that connectivity – joined-up thinking, if you like – is absolutely central.

Once the Australians started competing really fiercely after the interval, they shared a common wavelength. A team can have the best decision-makers in the world operating from scrums and line-outs, but it doesn't add up to much if a side becomes disconnected in phase play. Taking their cue from the midfielders, the Wallaby forwards had a highly-developed understanding of where and when they should get involved, of what was expected of them and why.

This theme of collective appreciation relates to speed of ball at the tackle area – a big talking point in the wake of England's defeat – just as much as it does to the creation of attacking opportunities. Now, it's easy to talk about quick ball and a lot more difficult to deliver it, but in simple terms, there are three important factors involved: sound technique; good pace into the contact area and physicality once you get there; and, most importantly, the capacity to make what I call high-velocity decisions, especially in the case of the second and third men in support. It is they who, if they make the right calls, can ensure quality possession rather than allow the ruck to descend into chaos.

As every tackle situation is different, the top-class international player is one who recognises these differences and acts accordingly, at speed. Too many players appear to think to themselves: "Right, it's a collision area, so I'll just plough right in there and do some colliding." Even if fast ball emerges, it will soon become slow ball unless there is a general appreciation of how the attack should develop.

When England were building themselves into the team that would win the World Cup in 2003, that appreciation was widespread. Our scrum-halves, usually Matt Dawson or Kyran Bracken, would tell the forwards that by half-time, they wanted to be "blowing out of their backsides", or something to that effect. In other words, they wanted to play at such pace, and with such continuity, that they would be whacked out by the interval. Such rugby is not played by headless chickens. To achieve it, you have to think your way there. All 15 of you.

Clever Carter gets kicks in Cardiff

I was fascinated by Daniel Carter's performance for the All Blacks in their victory over Wales in Cardiff. Not in respect of the pyrotechnics he produced – there wasn't much of that, by his standards – but in the way he set about silencing the crowd and drawing the emotion from the occasion. He did this largely through his kicking game, which was full of intelligence and variety: a whole series of different kicks, some of them high and long, others short little chips down the blind side, still others against the grain.

A lot of people misunderstood his display, accusing him of kicking too much. In fact, it was a brilliantly judged effort, completely in tune with the requirements of an All Black team inexperienced in some areas. And this from a player who was some way short of full fitness – indeed, someone who we were reliably informed by the Welsh coaching staff wouldn't make it onto the field at all! How they must wish they'd been right.