Quick ball is the killer weapon England must find

Click to follow
The Independent Online

ENGLAND ARE not out of the World Cup running by any means. The road ahead is long and arduous, far more challenging now than it would have been had they got their thinking right against the All Blacks in that outstanding match at Twickenham. There are significant battles on the immediate horizon, not least against the Tongans on Friday. But amid all the disappointment of Saturday's defeat, I see no overwhelming reason why Clive Woodward's squad should not survive their probable quarter-final tie with South Africa in Paris and return to the familiar surroundings of south-west London with their hopes and dreams in one piece.

ENGLAND ARE not out of the World Cup running by any means. The road ahead is long and arduous, far more challenging now than it would have been had they got their thinking right against the All Blacks in that outstanding match at Twickenham. There are significant battles on the immediate horizon, not least against the Tongans on Friday. But amid all the disappointment of Saturday's defeat, I see no overwhelming reason why Clive Woodward's squad should not survive their probable quarter-final tie with South Africa in Paris and return to the familiar surroundings of south-west London with their hopes and dreams in one piece.

From what I have seen of this Springbok side, they are long on power but very short on creativity. This is not the flair South Africa of Stransky and Joubert, or the flexible South Africa of Teichmann. These Boks have a single match-winner in Joost van der Westhuizen, their scrum-half, and when you get to this level of rugby, no one player should be able to win a game on his own. What about Lomu, I hear you say? I agree that his try against England at the weekend was something special - Clive is not the first England coach to find himself on the wrong end of one of those - but an awful lot of New Zealand's football was played away from Jonah. To my mind, a certain Mr Mehrtens ran the show for the All Blacks and, what is more, ran it in a way we were unable to match.

But to return to the Boks. I suspect they are vulnerable to any side capable of stopping them on the gain-line; certainly, I think England have the presence to stack up against them physically. If the Spanish, who performed quite heroically and achieved a moral victory against South Africa at Murrayfield, can frustrate them for long periods, then England can justifiably approach the game with some confidence. And if they can reach the semi-final stage, it will come down to what happens on the day. This is not the moment for the English to abandon hope.

Nevertheless, the events of last Saturday will have hit the squad hard. England were fit, skilled and mentally right, but, as I mentioned last week, there was always the danger of their being out-thought. It seems to me that John Hart, the New Zealand coach, was extremely cute in his tactical approach; he worked out that England would struggle to breach the black defensive wall if they were restricted to a diet of slow ball and, sure enough, Josh Kronfeld proved him right with a remarkable performance in the loose. The ruck and maul count was massively in England's favour, but it means nothing because they could not recycle fast enough. Quick ball, especially quick turn-over ball, is the killer weapon in today's rugby and the defining moments of the match came when England conceded possession in contact situations.

Martin Johnson was quite correct when he stated during the build-up to the game that at this rarified level, teams achieve small but crucial edges rather than domination. On this occasion, the All Blacks were the ones who showed that they truly knew what they were doing when the rugby got serious. They played a simple game, as New Zealand sides have always done, but they were extremely acute in assessing how and where to attack according to the situation, and they did it to telling effect. Their performance was a huge boost for them; they are rebuilding and are not the finished article, yet they responded superbly to an intense English challenge in a daunting environment.

One of the Englishmen who helped maximise the intensity was Phil de Glanville, with whom I spent a good deal of time at Bath and whom I appointed national skipper in 1996. I allowed myself a wry smile when I read some of the eulogies to him both before and after the game, for they were written by people who fell over themselves to criticise him during his term of captaincy. Phil's rugby is understated, but highly effective; he thinks on his feet and, crucially, has the ability to translate the work done on the training pitch to specific situations on the field of play. His form is a bonus for Clive as he looks ahead to the knock-out stage of the competition.

If I was struck by the richness of the New Zealand performance, I have to say that the Wallabies also impressed me in beating the Irish in Dublin. They are playing clever, well thought-out rugby with a degree of game-plan sophistication equivalent to that we are seeing from the All Blacks. Look at their control in recycling possession from breakdown situations: they get over the ball in numbers on a broad base, put extreme pressure on the opponent by hitting the ruck very close to the ground and force the issue with the quality of their technique. As was always going to be the case, the Irish adopted the kitchen sink game plan. Kitchen sinks do not win big World Cup matches against sides equipped with all the mod cons.

We are rapidly heading towards the business end of the tournament: the World Cup has been with us for only two weekends, but you get little time to draw breath and very few opportunities to step back and reflect in these competitions. Some sides will be on the flight home by Sunday, amongst them one or two teams who probably expected better of themselves. But expectations are individual to each nation and it will be interesting to see how, say, the Spanish react to what has happened to them.

There are arguments either way as to the success of expanding the tournament to accommodate Spain, Uruguay, Namibia etc. I repeat, Spain were magnificent in defeat against the Springboks; they played with great character, enormous bravery and no little skill to restrict the overwhelming favourites - reigning world champions, remember - to under 50 points. But what did it do for the wider picture? What signal did it send to the Spanish public, the masses who have not yet bought into this game of ours? When the Boks poured on the pressure in the set scrums towards the end of the game, I found myself begging the referee to blow for time. The Spanish forwards were clearly in serious danger of injury and had a player been badly hurt, the effect on a fledgling rugby nation would have been wholly negative.

Still, the tournament is on fire now and the heat will only increase as we leave the pool stage behind. While the England-New Zealand game was worthy of a semi-final, a final even, it was in reality only a stage on the journey. We may yet see a second instalment of this particular rivalry.

Comments