Brian Ashton: England should win but ignore Robbo factor at your peril
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 01 October 2011
So the scene is set, 12,000 miles away from Hadrian's Wall, for the oldest of rugby enemies to meet in the final game of what has become a very tight World Cup pool.
The permutations have been well chronicled: suffice to say that Scotland could totally derail England's campaign by winning this morning, while Martin Johnson's men could point Andy Robinson and his players in the direction of the departure lounge.
When the teams played last weekend, there could not have been a greater contrast in fortunes. England easily overran a second-string Romanian side to assume pole position in the group while Scotland had a nightmare that may keep them awake in the small hours for some time. They must have kicked themselves hard after losing to Argentina. They might also have kicked Dan Parks, their outside-half, over his bizarre choice of play at the end of the game. Whether or not Felipe Contepomi, the Puma captain, was offside at the vital moment as the Scots claimed, Parks should never have contemplated an off-balance, wrong-footed drop goal. Correct thinking it was not. What to do in this situation? Retain the ball, regroup and have another pop when the odds are back in your favour. Scotland did the opposite. Parks has some previous in this regard and I was surprised he was on the field at all, as Ruaridh Jackson seemed to be doing a pretty competent job.
Not all the blame falls on one man, however: Scotland created, then wasted, any number of opportunities, largely through the meandering nature of their attacks in the wider channels. And I haven't yet mentioned the blatant defensive errors that led to Lucas Amorosino's late try – the score that ultimately laid the ground for this morning's potentially titanic struggle.
Whatever may have happened last weekend, there is no such thing as an easy match for England against the men from north of the border. For any number of reasons – historic and current, public and personal – this is a game all those associated with Scotland will be desperate to win. Add the adrenaline kick of playing rugby at a World Cup to the nationalistic emotions running around the Scottish dressing room, and you have a potent mix. They will be fired up, for sure.
And then there is the Robbo dimension. Andy knows how these tournaments work, having tasted World Cup success in '03 when his "oppo" today, Martin Johnson, was skipper, and I know the pleasure he took in helping England reach the summit. He went on to succeed Clive Woodward as head coach – a job in which he took great pride. However, given the circumstances of his subsequent removal from the job by the Rugby Football Union, I can't imagine that his thoughts will be anywhere but with his own team this morning.
In all my time in the game, I can't remember encountering an individual who brought more passion to his rugby, either as a player or a coach. I was assistant to Jack Rowell when Andy was awarded the captaincy at Bath and, believe me, heading up that side was never an easy job. There were so many top players and so many big egos, yet what seemed from the outside to be a disparate group was fused together by a collective attitude that was highly professional and ambitious.
Andy was a pleasure to coach. Playing the way he did in the No 7 slot as our crucial link-man, he not only needed a wide-ranging understanding of the needs of forwards and backs alike but also had to develop a feel for the dynamic integrated game – a game in which he fully believed then and is trying to instil into the Scotland side now. However, there is also a pragmatic side to him, and this will manifest itself more in the Scotland performance today than it did against the Pumas. He does not suffer fools gladly. If I know Andy, he will be smarting from some things that happened last weekend and will be expecting some enhanced decision-making on this occasion.
The last two meetings between the sides have been close: a draw at Murrayfield a couple of Six Nations Championships ago and a narrow victory for England in this year's tournament. In both matches the Scots generated enormous pressure at the tackle area, either stealing possession or slowing down opposition ball sufficiently for the defenders to win the race to the gainline and ask the England midfield attack the kind of questions they have yet to answer in this competition. Scotland will set out to play with characteristic fury and tempo. If the weather is wet and the grass slippery, Robbo's men will bring their appetite for destruction to the party.
The task for England, therefore, is to control the tempo themselves. I'm not convinced they have enough belief, especially in a match of this nature, to attack from anywhere on the field, although when I remember Chris Ashton's wonderful try against Australia last November, I hope I'm wrong. As the Scots find it difficult to score from their own half, I expect England to play a game based around dominant field position, which will help them place the Scottish set-piece in a vice, and use strong defence to force their opponents to kick ball away or resort to the meandering brand of rugby that cost them dear against the Pumas. The Scots' kicking game has not been a forte of theirs in this tournament to date, so England's back three could have opportunities to return the ball with interest if they have the will to do so. I suspect England will be very direct in their early running: they will want to establish a rhythm and employ the appropriate number of players around the tackle area to generate quick ball. Ben Youngs will be a key figure in this at scrum-half.
Just as England must focus on the collision areas and mix up their approach in order to establish good positions, so the Scots will have to play much smarter in retaining and using possession in ways that will cause problems. And I should add this one rather obvious point: individual emotional control could play a significant role in the outcome if the scores remain close. No doubt players on both sides will set out to wind up certain opponents – in the nicest possible way, of course – but discipline will be so important.
I'm going with an England win: I think they have the better players and more often than not, this is the factor that makes the difference. I do not, however, dismiss lightly the Robbo influence. This could be his moment.
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