Brian Ashton: The Farrells can unlock England's imagination
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 03 March 2012
I listened to my head rather than my heart last weekend and just about made the right call as Wales scrambled to a gutsy, gritty Six Nations victory over England. It was a mighty close-run thing, but the key element was the Welsh ability to control the ball – and therefore the game – for long stretches of the second half, most importantly when their outside-half Rhys Priestland was in the sin bin. All in all, it was another sign of their growing maturity as a group.
Unusually, their decision-making was markedly better during the 10 minutes they spent at a numerical disadvantage, but then, Priestland's temporary absence simplified matters in the sense of narrowing the parameters. During the first half, especially, I was baffled by the attacking route Wales chose to pursue. In previous matches, they had looked comfortable playing an all-court game. At Twickenham, parts of the court were unvisited. Did Alex Cuthbert, their much talked-about right wing, receive more than a single pass? If he did, I don't remember the second one.
There seemed to be a notion that England's midfield defence might be fragile, and Wales' Lions centre Jamie Roberts, aided and abetted by others, spent a good deal of time exploring the option without success. As a result of the lack of go-forward momentum generated by this tactic, the Welsh reverted to type and played the kind of unproductive rugby I highlighted in these pages recently, plodding round the corner with the powerful scrum-half Mike Phillips in the vanguard before meandering across the field and going precisely nowhere.
Yet what they lacked in attacking edge, they made up for in composure, in doggedness and in collective will. Now the difficult trip to Twickenham is behind them, they will no doubt reappraise things ahead of the last two rounds, which could bring them another Six Nations title, another Grand Slam – or, indeed, both.
For their part, the men in white moved on significantly in terms of performance following the rugged victories over Scotland and Italy. Building on the traditional values of English rugby, they brought a much more enlightened approach to the attacking side of things, the most striking features being a determination to retain width whenever possible, thus minimising the mindless chasing of the ball around the field by unnecessarily large numbers of players. Because of this, they had more opportunities to run at the underpopulated parts of the Welsh defence and were able to provide precisely the kind of possession a half-back like Lee Dickson requires.
In his first outing in the No 10 shirt, Owen Farrell marshalled his troops to good effect. He often found himself on the front foot, which helped him no end, and because of the attacking shape he and his colleagues put on the contest he was able to indulge and explore the variety that exists in his own game. We knew he could kick and tackle. Here, he showed us he could pass and run too.
If he forced Wales to raise an eyebrow or two, I suspect the visitors were also surprised by the effectiveness of the Brad Barritt-Manu Tuilagi partnership in the centre. Apart from constructing a solid defensive barrier, they made inroads, in company with one or two of the forwards, in testing their opponents in the wider midfield areas.
Their willingness to find ways around the brick wall rather than simply crash into it was part of the shift in thought process and methodology that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching colleagues are bringing to the England set-up. Just recently, I have heard some very complimentary words spoken about Andy Farrell's contribution in developing England's game, both in attack and defence. Those words did not surprise me. Andy has a great knowledge of rugby, excellent communication skills and bags of positive energy. Not a bad combination, I hope you'll agree.
England still have some way to go, but I think they are on the correct path and I'm sure the current coaching team are determined to pursue that path, come what may. It will take time for the new ideas to take root – not until the players develop an instinctive understanding of how to apply the changes will we see the full effect – and those responsible for appointing the permanent head coach could easily blow everything clean out of the water.
There was only one aspect of Saturday's compelling game that amounted to a blot on the landscape: the almost interminable amount of time both scrum-halves – supposedly the live wires and heartbeats of their respective teams – spent fiddling around at the base of rucks, waiting for the right moment to box-kick or set up another contact situation. Some of what they did, most notably prodding the ball back into the ruck after it had emerged, was illegal, yet they never looked like being penalised. This kind of thing is every bit as boring to watch as a series of scrum resets. Quite frankly, if I had forked out £70-plus for a ticket, along with the added expense of travel, accommodation, food and drink, I would be asking the International Rugby Board's Referee Benevolent Society for a refund.
Up at Murrayfield, it was a tale of two coaches. Andy Robinson, as honest and forthright as ever in his pre-tournament remarks about the necessity for an improvement in results, finds himself in an uncomfortable "played three, lost three" scenario. Yet in my book he has presided over an upturn in performance while introducing some exciting new talent. Scotland are never out of the contest these days, so there is obviously something positive going on. Certainly, Andy has developed a more dynamic game, freeing up many aspects of play. In return, the players themselves must demonstrate that they have the sense of responsibility and discipline to eliminate the basic technical errors that continue to plague them.
Meanwhile, Philippe Saint-André had his first taste, as a coach at least, of the kind of distracted, indifferent mindset only the French can bring to the international stage. As he watched his players stumble ineptly around their own 22 for the first quarter of the match, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a game was actually taking place, he must have wondered if these were the same people who had boarded the plane in Paris.
In the end, the French played two "get out of jail" cards, using their world-class scrum and attacking decisively off turnover ball to control the latter stages of the contest. They won, but it was hardly in the grand style – let alone the Grand Slam style. Robinson and Saint-André? Both of them have much to ponder.
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