Robinson primes his men for tough challenges ahead

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson is not exactly distancing himself and his England team from the seven-year regime of Sir Clive Woodward; apart from anything else, Robinson was the good knight's principal fellow traveller throughout the latter, success-soaked half of the Woodward era. But the new man is certainly intent on moving things on. If his predecessor presided over more meetings than an insomniac Cabinet minister, Robinson favours less talk and more action. Where Sir Clive famously did "100 things one per cent better than everyone else", his former second-in-command is more interested in getting a handful of crucial particulars 100 per cent right.

Andy Robinson is not exactly distancing himself and his England team from the seven-year regime of Sir Clive Woodward; apart from anything else, Robinson was the good knight's principal fellow traveller throughout the latter, success-soaked half of the Woodward era. But the new man is certainly intent on moving things on. If his predecessor presided over more meetings than an insomniac Cabinet minister, Robinson favours less talk and more action. Where Sir Clive famously did "100 things one per cent better than everyone else", his former second-in-command is more interested in getting a handful of crucial particulars 100 per cent right.

The proof of the pudding will not be long in coming, but it is not imminent. The coach knows full well that England should smithereen the touring Canadians at Twickenham this afternoon, and if the inexperienced North Americans are indeed as callow as their lack of reputation suggests, a red-rose back division boasting such rich attacking talents as Charlie Hodgson, Henry Paul and Jason Robinson could easily rattle up 70 points with time left on the clock. And what would the back-room hierarchy learn of themselves and their charges from such a slaughter? Double naff-all, quite frankly.

There again, they cannot afford to not take notice of the minutiae of this afternoon's performance, for the Springboks and the Wallabies are next up - two outstanding sides, well capable of poking their spoons into any soft-boiled areas of this unfamiliar England side. So today's buzz-phrase is "zero tolerance", not only in terms of a Canadian presence on the scoreboard, but in terms of unforced errors and muddled decision-making. If the world champions are to stand an earthly against the Boks this time next week, they must press the right buttons here.

Phil Larder, the specialist defence coach, fully understands the importance of this sixth Test meeting between the two countries. "We lost our trust in each other - the most important thing we've ever possessed as a team - during the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia," he admitted.

"Why? Because we defended badly. Our overwhelming priority here is to rediscover that trust, to the extent that every player can look at his colleagues in the dressing room after the game and have complete faith in them, based on their performance on the field."

Like any coach who finds himself impaled on the rough end of the sporting pineapple, as Larder did last June, excuses are not in short supply. "The players were tired at the end of a momentous season," he said, "and anyway, we tend to treat these people like machines rather than outstanding individuals. There is only so much they can give." But the Twickenham audience, albeit down to 40,000 souls this afternoon, see it differently. They see the Webb Ellis Trophy tarnished by recent failure, thanks to five defeats in six outings since early March, and they are far more interested in solutions than explanations.

While today's Test may turn out to be unworthy of the name, a fair few English reputations are on the line. Joe Lydon, the most recent addition to the coaching panel, is to attack what Larder is to defence, and if his patterns fail to produce a try-laden performance against what is likely to be a willing but naïve Canadian combination, he can expect some disgruntled mutterings from those paying £45 in the expectation of a red-rose landslide. Mark Cueto, the new cap from Sale, has put shedloads of points past Premiership rivals, all of whom would expect to beat these tourists with something to spare. Drawing a blank here will not help him resist the challenge of the demoted Ben Cohen.

And then there is the Hodgson-Paul axis in midfield. England have two of the most sophisticated distributors in the British game at their disposal - only Will Greenwood of Harlequins, who is on the bench, and Alex King of Wasps are in the same class as passers of the ball - so in theory, there should be no shortage of space. But Hodgson is decidedly injury-prone, and Paul has been known to go walkabout in the face of spirited resistance. The coaches are desperate for both men to get through this match, Hodgson in the physical sense and Paul in the psychological one. If either man fails, what price a victory over the Boks?

"We're expected to win and I think that expectation is justified," Robinson said. "But this game is about us looking forward by looking at ourselves and our processes. It is not about comparisons with the past, about what used to be, but about what is right for England now. I want us to be a little less structured, to develop a game that is stimulating to play as well as to watch. To my mind, rugby is about making decisions. If you have too structured an approach, where does the decision-making come in?"

England have the right decision-makers on the field today. All they have to do is make the correct calls.

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