If I correctly forecast the result of last weekend's England-Australia match at Twickenham, it does not make me a fortune-teller. Yes, I thought the Wallabies could and would be beaten but, if I'm honest, I was many miles away from predicting that the contest would unfold in the way it did.
There was a great deal to enjoy in the England performance, and we should ignore those critics who, even in the face of an 80-minute display of that quality, could not help highlighting individual errors or banging on that the tourists missed some early penalties. If you aspire to play in the dynamic, early-ball, offloading, space-attacking manner we saw on Saturday, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made.
As far as I'm aware, the flawless game of rugby – the perfect game – is a figment of the sporting imagination. It doesn't exist, and it never will exist. Rugby of real ambition depends on individual decision-making, allied to an immediate response from the other 14 players in the side. Only in this way can a genuinely positive approach be kept on track, and the challenge is considerable. We may be talking about a simple game, but it places great demands on those attempting to play it with a high degree of adventure.
Saturday's game marked a translation into action of a change of mindset first hinted at in Paris last March, when England played the Grand Slam-chasing French in the final round of Six Nations matches – a contest that followed hard on the heels of a miserable dirge at Murrayfield seven days previously. There were also indications that a switch had been flicked during the Test against the Wallabies in Sydney in June. Again, it had been preceded by a poor performance, in Perth a week earlier.
In both Paris and Sydney, the team pieced together some of the components of the game we saw last weekend, but only for 20 or so minutes at a time. It seemed they had neither the belief nor the capability to go the whole hog. Last Saturday, those missing elements were very much in evidence, and it seemed to me that the discovery of them coincided with the fact that the much talked about younger players – Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton, Ben Foden and Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes – had a little more Test experience to draw on. I said in these pages before the New Zealand game that these relative newcomers could be the agents of change in English rugby, and I'm happy to stand by that prophecy.
This is not to ignore the performances of the more established members of the side, some of whom are bringing a good deal to the party. But a feeling persists that the newer group have injected an infectious brand of enthusiasm, and that this is behind the sudden embrace of an all-court style of rugby. I know the word "creativity" is rather moot in some circles, but if what Youngs did from behind his own line to launch Ashton on that wonderful try-scoring run wasn't creative, I don't know is. I'm told another fine scrum-half, Matt Dawson, suggested that no English half-back in 50 years would have taken that decision. This takes us back to 1960, and I have to say that Dickie Jeeps, who was playing then, wouldn't have done it either.
Youngs is the catalyst for much of what is going on. By pure coincidence, I spent some of last week in Norfolk, visiting the school and club where he played his early rugby. By common consent, his great strength lay in his reading of the game – his ability to identify space and spot mismatches far earlier than his rivals. He is a No 9 in the old-fashioned French mould, prepared to assume leadership responsibility on the grounds that, more often than not, he is the first man to lay hands on the ball in attack. Also, he makes his decisions early – often before he is actually in possession. This gives him a valuable edge.
The great news is that no one has managed to coach all this out of him. He'll make mistakes, and he has technical issues to address, especially with his passing. But when you have a player whose choices are so instinctively correct – when to feed the outside-half, when to go to the wider runners, when to hit the short side, when to box-kick – you really don't need to go down the road of forcing him to do particular things in particular areas of the field. Instead, you create a positive environment for him, wind him up and let him play.
Win a mixed case of Sharp's beer!
Do you think you know your rugby? Do you want to make your voice heard? Do you want to win a delicious case of beer? Tell us what you think about the state of the game in the comments below, and you could be in with a shot at winning 12 assorted bottles of Sharp's Brewery’s finest ales including its flagship beer Doom Bar.
Over the next month, Online sports editor Simon Rice will be watching the comments under Brian Ashton's Saturday columns like a hawk, looking out for the most interesting, thoughtful and provocative comments from readers. Is Brian on the money, or is he talking nonsense? What's wrong with the England team, who's going to win the Premier League, and are New Zealand really unbeatable?
Then, on December 9, after a month's heated debate, Simon will pick his favourite comment to win that case of Sharp's beer. What are you waiting for? Put the rugby world to rights. Entrants must be aged 18 years or older, and resident in the UK. Terms and conditions apply. If you have any problems posting your comments, you can also email your entry to firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content