James Lawton: It's difficult to even half believe in the uprising of the red-rose army
Where were the new Jason Robinson or Will Greenwood or Johnson or Dallaglio? Where were those explosions of individual merit that lift and embolden a team?
Monday 08 November 2010
Lawrence Dallaglio is one of the most inspiring figures in the history of English rugby. He once threatened to sing his head off while rendering the national anthem at Lansdowne Road, a virtuoso performance that paled only when he promptly turned into Godzilla.
He now gives a small cheep of support for the idea that the successors of the 2003 world champions are getting a little stronger at the broken places.
Unfortunately it is one of the least resonant battle cries to come from the brilliant team-mate of the former captain and now coach Martin Johnson when the great prize was gained on a rain-smeared night in Sydney.
The trouble is that if Johnson's England are better, if here on Saturday they showed impressive spirit in closing the floodgates on an All Black performance that briefly threatened to be nothing less than eviscerating, we have to ask an oppressive question: better than the shambolic, discipline-free parody of an international team which made Johnson's first year in the job such a minefield?
Undoubtedly, they are, but does this mean they are no longer such long shots to reproduce even their hazardous and ultimately frustrating progress to the last World Cup final in Paris? Unfortunately, it doesn't.
You may say that holding the No 1 team which had been so rampantly inventive, until their narrow, stop-over defeat by Australia in Hong Kong just a week ago, to a mere 10-point margin was a decent enough performance. You might also agree with the great Dallaglio that if an embattled team is to show at least a glimpse of a green shoot or two the scrum, where the New Zealanders were given quite as much as they could handle, is an encouraging place to start. So why was the less than capacity Twickenham crowd so subdued, why did one of their number reflect on the ride back to Waterloo station: "You know, when we got within seven points I believed we might just do it... No, let's get it right. I half believed."
At the level England are obliged to operate, half believing will never do. The brutal truth is two-fold. The All Blacks slid off their game after an opening of awesome potential. England, particularly behind the scrum, were so short of inspiration, or anything more than mediocre ability, they might have been playing by numbers.
In fact it was hard to remember an afternoon at headquarters which was so essentially dispiriting.
Johnson, who could at least be heartened by the honesty of his team's effort, naturally talked about his work in progress, but what he couldn't say or point to was any sense that England, with its huge player population and ever increasing eye for a commercial edge, are displaying as much as a hint of the dynamism that was so apparent back when Dallaglio was singing, and playing, his heart out in Dublin en route to the triumph Down Under.
Ireland were destroyed that day by a team of fierce strength and all-consuming self-belief.
In the week in which a new second strip was revealed, along with the admission that New Zealand had been consulted on the appropriateness of its resemblance to the one that has dominated the rugby senses for so long, there was another damning reaction. Why, it asked, don't they wear pure grey?
On the field there was one more harsh comparison, made even more severe by the fact that the one authentically original talent produced by England in recent years, Danny Cipriani, is now pursuing his career in Australia, between the teams ranked first and sixth in the world.
The All Blacks showed us for the first time Hosea Gear and Sonny Bill Williams while England offered Shontayne Hape. The results could only emphasise the size of the gulf.
Where is the invention, the hard edge of brilliance, in English rugby? Jonny Wilkinson may never have been the supreme example of these qualities but for so long was extraordinary in the matter of commitment and competitive instinct and in his absence inevitably the search is for hints that someone of his order might just be in the works. At the moment it is hard to imagine any less rewarding work.
At the base of the scrum the 21-year-old Leicester Tiger Ben Youngs displayed an encouraging, business-like combativeness and after the bloodied skipper Lewis Moody and No 8 Nick Easter was probably England's best player. But this was a small talent pool indeed to set against exploitation of New Zealand riches that became increasingly sporadic and careless as the game wore on, especially when Jerome Kaino left for the sin bin.
Watching the sinuous, electric Gear and the game-breaking threat of Sonny Bill was to be reminded yet again of the durability and the vitality of the All Black rugby gene. But it was also another light picking out the failure of English rugby to build on the strength that was so self-evident on the road to the world title.
Where was the new Jason Robinson or Will Greenwood or Wilkinson or Johnson or Dallaglio or Richard Hill, where were those explosions of individual merit that lift and embolden a team?
Such figures were simply not on the radar, just the unshakeable reaction that the greatest failure of English rugby is in not beginning to show that it has the ability to reproduce the best of itself.
Scarcely a week passes by without news of some business initiative at Twickenham. They even have their own custom-built hotel with suites offering views of the famous field. The bureaucracy of English rugby swells from day to day. But, increasingly, you have to wonder what the point is if the greatest income-earner of all, a living, breathing, potentially world-beating team, refuses to catch light?
Continually, Twickenham pours out the bromide.
The future is secured, the business plan is a beauty and success will come again. Then, you look down on the field and, whatever the cost and the luxury of the vantage point, you are on the same train as the fan heading back to Waterloo. You have a big struggle to even half believe.
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