The Rugby Football Union's execution party held its fire yesterday as Andy Robinson, the head coach of an England team one match away from being stigmatised as the worst in more than 130 years of international rugby, was given another 12 days to right the grievous wrongs affecting the reigning world champions. While the guns are still trained upon him - there will be a high-powered review of recent events after the two-Test series with South Africa beginning at Twickenham this weekend - he is not the only man up against the wall. Martin Corry, the captain, is standing right there beside him.
Rob Andrew, the elite director of rugby and one of those involved in yesterday's crisis meeting with Robinson, made his dissatisfaction with the Test team's on-field leadership abundantly clear, and while he stressed that all senior players should look at themselves extremely closely in this regard, his comments increased the likelihood of Corry being replaced sooner rather than later.
"Leadership is a major area for any team, and I believe this is one of the things we must address and improve," he said, adding that he and his colleagues in the Twickenham hierarchy were engaged in the "on-going process of finding a captain for next year's World Cup". Ouch. If Corry, who took over the captaincy from Jason Robinson towards the end of the 2005 Six Nations Championship, is confident of remaining in long-term charge in light of that little outburst, he must be the most positive character in professional sport.
Andrew did not buy the argument that England currently have their tactical knickers in a twist, even though Charlie Hodgson, the first-choice playmaker, believes they are "trying to play too much rugby", and Jake White, the coach of the Springboks, feels his opponents are on a "downward spiral" at least partially because they are "moving away from what works for them as a rugby nation".
In the view of the elite director, no one is being asked to perform deeds beyond his capabilities. "Good players know what is possible and what isn't when they are on the field, and make their decisions accordingly," he said. "We need to develop players willing to take responsibility. These are the people who win games."
Corry has turned in some courageous performances in recent months, most notably against the French in Paris last spring. Unfortunately, these individual high points tend to occur during collective low points, and there is a growing sense that he is better at confronting adversity than he is at establishing superiority. Even if he survives to lead the team against the Boks on Saturday, there is a strong chance he will be replaced after Christmas, especially if Phil Vickery of Wasps returns to Test activity and stays fit for longer than the proverbial five minutes.
Three leading RFU figures - the chairman, Martyn Thomas, the chief executive, Francis Baron, and the Club England committee chairman, John Spencer - joined Andrew in discussing events with Robinson yesterday, after which Andrew confirmed that the coach would stay in his post until the conclusion of the autumn series.
The elite director mounted a defence of sorts on behalf of Robinson - asked whether last weekend's 25-18 defeat by Argentina was the most inept he could remember, the former outside-half remarked that he had participated in worse displays himself - but he nevertheless described the performance as "unacceptable" and reminded his audience that he had "said all along that no one's position was absolutely guaranteed".
He also sent out the clearest of signals in respect of improving a domestic structure he believes undermines England's chances of showing the best of themselves in the Test arena. "One of the reasons this job of mine was created was the need for someone to find a better way of developing and managing world-class players in this country," he said. "There are issues here, and everyone knows it. We have the most complex and difficult structure in world rugby from an elite performance point of view."
Meanwhile, the South Africans pitched up at a hotel on the outskirts of Bath that just happened to be a drop-goal's distance from Robinson's house - clearly an omen of sorts, even if no one quite knew what it meant. White, a gifted and articulate man who understands the pressures of being roundly condemned by his sporting public, expressed considerable sympathy for his opposite number, saying: "We have an empathy in this game, a special bond; when we talk of the traits, values and characteristics we look for in rugby people, we mean it. I feel for the guy. It must be really tough on him, especially as England are world champions and carry such a weight of expectation. It's a lonely feeling when things are going wrong."
White has problems enough of his own, without worrying about other people. But he did venture the opinion that England were undermining their own strengths by adopting a radical new approach to attacking rugby. "They dominated the world because they had big forwards and outside-halves who could give them field position," he said. "It's difficult to start moving away from the things that work for you. I certainly don't think every country is capable of playing the complete rugby game everyone seems to be talking about."
Try this for size: Chris Hewett's England team to play South Africa
England need a pack to win the dogfight, put Charlie Hodgson on the front foot and give the outside backs the opportunity to play in the most productive areas of the field. As they have not won a fight of any description since the Six Nations' victories over Wales and Italy last February, the time has come to perform some major surgery. Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery, two World Cup-winners back from injury, should be restored to the front row immediately. Both men combine footballing skill - a commodity in short supply at present - with a ruthless physicality conspicuous by its absence over the last four matches.
Chris Jones, of Sale, another forward willing to mix it with the opposition, should feature somewhere in the XXII, even if the strong temptation to start him in the second row is finally resisted.
Tom Rees, the uncapped Wasps flanker, should definitely be given a run from the off in a reshaped back row. The more Lewis Moody plays at open-side flanker, the more he looks like a blind-side specialist. England should bite the bullet now. Martin Corry, meanwhile, is better suited to the No 8 position, especially against a bullying outfit like the Springboks.Reuse content