I can see why Martin Johnson and the England coaches are starting to fret about their team's discipline, or lack of it: conceding kickable penalties in major international matches has never done much for a side's chances of developing the winning habit, and if you can't get through a half of rugby without seeing one or more players trudge off to the sin bin, it's time to accept that there's a pretty serious issue to be addressed.
Having said that, I think there are better ways of dealing with the problem than taking aim at a referee five days before a match. Back in Australia, the Wallaby hierarchy has been known to indulge in a little of what the political classes call "spin": that is to say, highlight a worrying area of the opposition game in a way that attracts a referee's attention and persuades him to take a closer look at things than might otherwise have been the case. I know, because I was a part of it for a few years. But our approach was a little more subtle than the stuff England came out with at the start of the week.
Their criticism of Jonathan Kaplan's performance in the last Six Nations game against Wales and their suggestion that they are being refereed differently to other sides was presumably aimed at Craig Joubert, another South African official, ahead of today's match in Dublin. England may find that instead of making Joubert more sympathetic towards them, they've made things worse by putting his back up. Joubert is a young referee who will be determined not to be told what to do by anyone. If I'd been in the England camp this week, I think I'd have stayed quiet in public and worked hard in private on identifying the best way for Steve Borthwick, the captain, to manage the referee on the field.
Steve has taken some criticism from people who question whether he is sufficiently assertive in getting the referee on side, but I'd say he's the ideal bloke to do it. He's a measured character who shows the proper degree of respect and picks his moments well. Of course, he's not the most experienced Test captain around, and these diplomatic skills take time to develop. Once he's been in place for a full season, officials will respond and treat him with equal respect.
Ultimately, the penalties and yellow cards are England's fault, not the fault of the referee. Their problems are concentrated in and around the breakdown area, and it seems to me that the coaches are asking people to make too many decisions too quickly. There is no clear policy on how many players should be involved in a ruck, when they should get involved, and how long they should stay in there once they've become involved.
When England were in their pomp, they had a three-second rule when it came to putting hands on the ball at the breakdown. A player would start counting, and if he hadn't won the ball by the time he arrived at "three", he'd let it go. We in the Wallabies got to hear about this and we copied it precisely, to great effect. It's not rocket science, but it worked. I think today's England players could do worse than start counting every time they find themselves contesting possession at the tackle area.
Even if they stay on the right side of the referee at Croke Park tonight, they'll have their work cut out. I like the look of Ireland. If they win some good set-piece ball, I can see them attacking Riki Flutey and Mike Tindall in midfield and scoring a couple of tries off first phase. England showed signs of improvement in Cardiff, but if their defensive discipline lets them down again, they'll be in strife.
As for the Scotland-Italy game at Murrayfield, I have to say I feel for the visitors. The Experimental Law Variations have affected Italy more than any other side, because virtually all the things they did well are now either illegal or easily combated. They need some luck today, and they need it early. If they can get a 10-point lead, they'll be in the hunt. If the Scots are allowed to play their own game rather than chase the scoreboard, the many Italian weaknesses will be exposed.
Eddie Jones is Saracens' director of rugby and you can see his side in Guinness Premiership action against Sale at Vicarage Road tomorrow, kick-off 3pm.Reuse content