Peter Bills: England's ability can finally flourish

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The Independent Online

You read it here first.

I said months ago, not just England but several countries in the northern hemisphere had the players to embrace the new attack-based game plan possible under the new law interpretations.

You could see against France in Paris last March that the England players were there. At times that night, if you were not familiar with the jersey colours of the two teams, you would have thought the French played in white, England in blue.

The French were plodding, forward obsessed and attempting to play risk free rugby. The way England came pouring out of their own half, time and again, on the counter attack, with Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto prominent, it was clear that England had the personnel to play this ‘new’ game.

But with most coaches and blinkered commentators blaming the IRB for ruining the game, nothing happened. Yet in truth, all that was holding them back was ultra cautious coaching and it has bedevilled English rugby for too long. But we saw last weekend against Australia just what England’s players can do with ball in hand IF they are given the licence to make their own decisions. Yes, even on their own line.

Some ruined game, eh?

Chris Ashton’s try last Saturday was the best I have seen from an Englishman at Twickenham since Andy Hancock’s against Scotland in 1965. Perhaps not as subtle as Richard Sharp’s elegant effort against the Scots in 1963, because the Northampton wing’s effort was down to raw, blasting pace, but it was no less worthy for that.

Yet in a sense, it was the two acts prior to Ashton even receiving the ball that made the score. Primarily, it was Ben Youngs’ decision not to do the orthodox, the predictable and kick for touch on his own line but instead, to throw a feint, and move the ball right.

Why did he do this? Because he looked up and saw an opportunity. We can imagine the horrors writ large upon the faces of coaches everywhere as he dummied on his own line and started to run. But if Youngs’ vision was key, so too was Courtney Laws’ superb off-load in a double tackle to free the ball and set Ashton on his way.

Now of course, the Saints flyer still had a huge amount to do. It told you something about his searing pace that a real speedster like Drew Mitchell was unable to catch him. But Laws’ clever act in sucking in the two defenders and then off-loading at the critical moment was equally crucial.

Off-loading in the tackle; it is fundamental to the new game. Scotland were blown away by New Zealand’s ability to do it at Murrayfield. The All Blacks were actually playing the same game, although it didn’t look like it. But what they were doing was the simple basics of the sport – passing in front of the man, the ball carrier sucking in an opponent and thereby taking him out of the play and then releasing at the critical moment so as to maintain continuity.

England can do this; clearly, they have several players of real speed, ability and vision. But they have chosen not to do so, for too long.

I repeat what I wrote months ago. Don’t tell me players like Brian O’Driscoll, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald of Ireland plus Shane Williams, James Hook, Jamie Roberts and the new star, George North, of Wales cannot do the same thing. As for the French, a nation whose entire rugby pedigree was forged on speed and attacking rugby, they seem almost bereft of the ability to play such a game.

Of course, they need a forward base, a proper platform off which to operate. But that does not necessarily mean huge forward supremacy. Go and study the tapes of these autumn internationals and see how many times northern hemisphere sides received loose ball in propitious counter attacking situations in their own half, yet lacked the true conviction to do serious damage going forward, to make it pay. There are myriad examples.

This is what the northern hemisphere has lacked. Real belief and the faith of coaches to try something apart from a mantra obsessed with defence. We have to hope what England did against Australia last weekend will encourage others to try something of the same.

And finally, a note to the coaches. Please, please don’t even bother suggesting to your players it could be worth attempting something of the sort if you’re not prepared to back them up when it goes wrong. It will at times, you can guarantee that.

But if sides persist with it, they can play this ‘new’ game and entertain regally everyone watching, into the bargain.

I wonder how many fans filed out of Twickenham last Saturday night cursing the IRB for ‘ruining the game’........