Peter Bills: England's mediocrity should come as no surprise
Tuesday 17 November 2009
England play rugby like constipated diners and people express surprise. But why?
So much remains wrong with the England set-up, just as it has been wrong since 2003, that it is no wonder English rugby is becoming the laughing stock of the world game. The hopeless, hapless Australians turn up at Twickenham after a nightmare season in the southern hemisphere including their seventh straight defeat by a New Zealand side, miles short of the greats that hallmark All Blacks history. Yet the Wallabies are far too good for England.
A weakened Argentina would have won at Twickenham had they possessed either Juan Martin Hernandez or Felipe Contepomi. And, joke of all jokes, England go on about being without so many key players. Well yes, they have missed guys like Phil Vickery and Simon Shaw. But do these two worthy warriors represent England's idea of the future? Vickery is 33, Shaw 36.
We should examine England's fall in the context not of just these past few months but the best part of six years since that World Cup win. Such a triumph should set up a nation for sustained success. Alas, crass poor planning, woeful decision making and a complete lack of vision have undermined all England's subsequent hopes of success.
The fools who lauded the Guinness Premiership as the finest league in the world are seeing the truth before their eyes. The Premiership is a competition riddled with fear, caution and a heavy focus on defence. It does little to encourage or enhance skill levels. So why would England suddenly be able to wave a magic wand when they get a squad together and play blindingly brilliant, attacking rugby?
The guys chosen against Australia and Argentina are playing the way they play each week – at a slow, ponderous pace. They put a heavy accent on defensive organisation in training, much less on attack and sharpening ball skills. Is it any wonder they look more like Homer Simpson when they try and run with it than Gerald Davies or David Campese?
But the decision making of the RFU is also heavily to blame for this mess. They sack a coach, Brian Ashton, a real visionary who has just taken them to the World Cup final and who is admired the world over by people who properly understand the game. Then they appoint Brian Smith, who, together with Toby Booth, has done stirring work at London Irish not only in making that club successful but also playing a brand of rugby that was highly entertaining. They produced the 15 man rugby Smith espouses.
But what do Twickenham do then? They saddle Smith with the Leicester mafia – Martin Johnson, John Wells and Graham Rowntree. These were all forwards who knew chiefly just one way to play; stuff the ball up their jumpers, heave like hell in a succession of rolling mauls and all fall over the try line together. That might have been successful for Leicester at club level but the folly of so limited an approach has been found out at international level.
You can't blame these blokes; that's the way they've always played the game, the only way they understand. Quick thinking, understanding the need for rapidly re-cycled second phase ball, off-loading a yard before taking the ball into contact so as to ensure continuity, allowing innovation, encouraging individual decision-making by players – all those requirements of the modern game are anathema to those brought up in the old Leicester way.
Another of Twickenham's blunders was to believe that a once great player could instantly become a great manager or coach. Johnson served no apprenticeship before being parachuted into the top job in England. Do Shell, BP or any other top businesses operate in such a ridiculous fashion? No. But the RFU does.
I suspect that Smith is totally overwhelmed and frustrated by the old Leicester influence which clearly reigns in the England camp. None of Smith's teams have been as slow or ponderous as this one, confirming suspicions that others hold greater sway.
If England were serious about playing a style of rugby in keeping with the 21st century and genuinely challenging teams, they would appoint Smith and Booth as their men. Wells and Rowntree would be excellent back at Leicester, but their philosophy is not that of modern day international coaches. As for Johnson, an illustrious career behind him, he needs to decide if he really wants a career in this sport. If he does, he should go and do some groundwork somewhere, just as his former club and country team-mate Neil Back is doing at Leeds.
Is it the players' fault that they look shackled, terrified of doing anything different? Is it a coincidence England are currently playing rugby as though it were a game of chess? I don't think so.
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the current England management/coaching structure is that it has managed to transform players who were deemed good enough for the British & Irish Lions last summer – the likes of Ugo Monye and Tom Croft, plus highly promising youngsters like Shane Geraghty – into guys who look hopeless. That takes a particular level of competence...
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