I'm reading and hearing a good deal about Steve Borthwick's captaincy of the England team, a lot of it extremely critical.
For the life of me, I can't work out where people are coming from with this stuff. The issues affecting the national side are far wider, and run far deeper, than Steve's leadership, but there is nothing new in the captain carrying the can for other people's problems. Ask John Eales of Australia, or John Smit of South Africa, both of whom experienced what Steve is going through now. Where did they end up? Winning the World Cup, that's where.
When Smit took over as Springbok captain, people complained he wasn't a good enough hooker, let alone a good enough leader. When Eales was given the top job with the Wallabies, there were those who dismissed him as a weak yes-man. In fact, he was given the nickname "Optus" – a company whose slogan was, "We Always Say Yes". Of course, history now tells us that these two blokes had a bit more about them than their critics imagined. I'm in no doubt that Steve will establish his credentials just as effectively, given a decent chance and some proper support.
Let's be honest: England are in a difficult situation. There are differences of rugby philosophy within the coaching team that have yet to be ironed out and the leadership structure around Steve is far weaker than it should be. As a result, the hunt is on for a scapegoat. Given the credit Martin has in the bank, his honeymoon is unlikely to end soon. That leaves Steve squarely in the firing line.
No, I'm not defending him because he's one of my players at Saracens. Whenever coaches and directors of rugby in the Premiership have informal conversations about who the best captains might be, Steve is always high on the list of mentions. That doesn't mean for a second that he can do it all on his own – not at club level, not at Test level. Anyone who knows anything about rugby appreciates that a captain needs people working alongside him who can make educated decisions on his behalf as and when the situation demands.
England have yet to identify such people. There is a pretty alarming lack of experience in the side – an indictment of the team-building programmes put in place since the World Cup victory five years ago. It's true that most teams who climbed that summit found it difficult to hold things together and move forward in the years following their success, but it's also a fact that England made a worse mess of it than anyone else.
It's why Steve has found himself leading a team with a pair of half-backs who are still relatively new to the demands at Premiership level, let alone international rugby, with an inside centre who hadn't played a Test match until this month and with newcomers on the wing and at full-back. And people are blaming him!
I don't believe this New Zealand team is as good as last year's World Cup side, or the 2003 one so there are areas that should interest England: the All Blacks line-out, which is none too flashy these days, and the scrum, which has not been as strong since Carl Hayman removed himself from the equation. What is more, their attacking game is more limited with Ma'a Nonu at inside centre than it was when Aaron Mauger was around.
But having said that, their second-half effort against Wales last week was probably the best anyone has played all year. They were very direct, very deliberate and in Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo, they had the outstanding players on the field. McCaw gets all the kudos – understandably so, because he's a remarkable player – but for my money, So'oialo is the best No 8 in the world. Between them, they will make life very difficult for England this afternoon.
It will be fascinating to see the way the game unfolds. Will England set out to attack the All Blacks, or will damage limitation be the name of their game? If they try to play the airy-fairy, let's-chuck-it-about stuff we've seen over the last couple of matches, they will have a long day.
Eddie Jones is the director of rugby at Saracens and you can see his side in Guinness Premiership action against Worcester at Vicarage Road tomorrow, kick-off 3pm.Reuse content