Peter Bills: Boring England are too scared

Click to follow
The Independent Online

So what on earth was all that about at Rome's Stadio Flaminio on Sunday? For sure, it had little to do with proper rugby.

I can't be alone in thinking that the first half was among the most boring there can ever have been in international rugby? There was an England-Wales match at Twickenham, in 1960 I seem to remember, which finished 0-0 after the two teams' goal kickers had missed about eight kicks between them.

But even that game didn't have the aimless, dire and incessant booting of the ball backwards and forwards by two teams too terrified to take a chance and try and run the ball. It was like Wimbledon, just watching the ball whizzing backwards and forwards. The only difference was the object used to propel the spherical thing – boots rather than rackets.

One thing has emerged with crystal clarity. England are too scared to try anything that is not in the script, not pre-planned. You could perhaps forgive Italy their part in what was a complete trashing of a once great game. They're still finding their way in the 6 Nations Championship and they badly lack the playing base to bring through credible alternatives to those in the team.

But England, with their enormous playing resources, have no such excuses. What they are producing in the main is a shocking indictment of their own failed programmes aimed at rugby excellence. Either that or, if the talent does exist, it may well be that most of the present coaching staff is not attuned to developing it and exploiting its potential.

In short, England desperately need to be liberated from this organisational straight-jacket in which they play.

What I find hard to understand is that when he was in charge at London Irish, Brian Smith's teams played with a wonderful breath of fresh air. They scored tries for fun, many from deep, and had one word as their mantra: attack.

Yet with England as attack coach, it appears that Smith's lifelong principles have gone AWOL. He always espoused that wonderful old Aussie maxim, 'Have a go, yer mug'. But it's next to impossible to discern any English players having a go at the moment. They seem hidebound by the script, unwilling or unable to make decisions based on what they see in front of them. We are entitled to ask, who is responsible for this?

I'm pretty sure we can discount the possibility that Smith has chucked all his attacking philosophies overboard and is ruling with a rod of iron, threatening all his players that if they dare to do anything different he will eject them from the squad and they'll never play for England again.

That is utter tosh. Nevertheless, it appears that something of the sort has infected an England squad that has coaches, specialist technicians, physios, dieticians, kicking gurus and, for all I know, florists coming out of their ears but still can't play any decent rugby.

Do we link the Leicester mafia – Martin Johnson, John Wells and Graham Rowntree, who collectively dominate the England coaching panel – to this unhappy syndrome? Well, if we don't, we have to go back to the Smith scenario which is nonsensical.

One thing is certain. As the Tories say of this wrecked country, we can't go on like this. They're right too and England's rugby critics are also spot-on in thinking the same thing.

No class, no style, no innovation, no threat.. just what ARE England offering at the moment? It's pretty difficult to see.

Perhaps those at the RFU who rushed, sheep-like, to embrace Martin Johnson in the deluded belief that a great player had to be, overnight, a great coach, are having second thoughts. After all, just as DNA fingers the criminals, so it is hard to dispute the evidence provided by England's latest aberration on the international rugby field.

Of course, this being a game of anything but exact science, fortunes can swing very rapidly. Victory over Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday week would doubtless calm and quieten such talk. But it shouldn't.

This England set-up has had enough time now to show at least some portents of future patterns and progress. Sunday in Rome showed us that, far from evidence of development, England are going backwards. Someone has to be responsible for that.