Robinson's England lose sense of direction

Scotland had the ball for just 13 minutes out of 80, but still they won. The numbers add up to trouble for the Red Rose coach
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The Independent Online

After Andy Robinson had relinquished possession of the Calcutta Cup and with it any pretence of a Triple Crown let alone a Grand Slam, he conceded in the bowels of Murrayfield that England had tried to play a game for which they were singularly ill-equipped.

Beforehand he said his players were ready to run over hot coals and through brick walls, but in the event they could not get past the Scottish back row of Jason White, Simon Taylor and Ally Hogg. It has entered folklore north of the border, of the "they shall not pass" variety, that Scotland made 112 tackles to 36. The top five tacklers in the match were the Scottish back row plus the half-backs Mike Blair and Dan Parks. England made 168 passes to Scotland's 56 but could not get through a defence that was compared to Hadrian's Wall.

In the first half Scotland were in possession for just six minutes, in the second for seven, yet they restricted England to four Charlie Hodgson penalties. Tactically, Martin Corry's team banged their head against a brick wall and reference was made, yet again, to the centre partnership of Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon, two crash-bang-wallop merchants who are prime products of the Premiership but who provided Scotland with tackling practice.

Not so long ago England scored tries galore in the Six Nations, and the chief beneficiaries were Jason Robinson, Will Greenwood and Ben Cohen. Only Cohen survives, but even he might not make the team for next Sunday's match against France in Paris.

England are confused, and it is not only at centre where things aren't happening. If he starts a match, Harry Ellis seems destined at some stage to be replaced by Matt Dawson, and a similar pattern is emerging with Ellis's fellow Tiger, Corry.

This is even worse, if only for the fact that Corry is the captain. What sort of signal does it send to the opposition when they see the England leader being hauled off? Probably one of encouragement. You do not see Scotland replacing White, France Fabien Pelous or Ireland Brian O'Driscoll. It is unheard of.

If Robinson is in a pickle it is home-made. When Lawrence Dallaglio retired from Test rugby in 2004, Robinson nominated Jonny Wilkinson as his long-term captain even though the World Cup hero was making more appearances in The Lancet than the match programme at Kingston Park. The coach does not appear to have learnt.

At the start of the season he announced that Corry would be his leader not only for the autumn internationals but also the Six Nations. He stopped short of saying the No 8 would be captain for next year's World Cup, but he still made a rod for his own back. Dallaglio, of course, is the former captain stealthily adding to his 70-odd caps at Corry's expense, but the situation is unsatisfactory for both players, not to mention their country.

On Thursday Dallaglio took time out to open his Eden Park fashion store in Richmond and look out, he says, for fine cotton rugby tops in lime, tangerine and raspberry. He knows how to deliver a raspberry and is bemused not only at England's lack of progress but at the continuing debate about the shadow he has cast over Corry. "There is nothing wrong in raising my hand and declaring that I want to play for England," Dallaglio said. "That was the whole point of making myself available again. It's called competition. It used to be fierce in the England squad and there should be more of it."

Dallaglio, who is not best suited to riding an exercise bicycle on the touchline during a Test match, admits there is an "element of patience" involved, but he needs an unequivocal vote of confidence from Robinson sooner rather than later. Invalided out of the Lions tour of New Zealand, he still has a steel plate in his right ankle. Does he have it removed in the summer or go to Australia with England?

"I have two more years with Wasps and one of my goals is to play in the World Cup and help England retain it, but I need a clue as to where I stand," Dallaglio said. He admits that "it doesn't look good" when the England captain comes off the field, and he was distinctly unimpressed by England's second-half substitutions against the Scots. "To my mind if you're going to make changes you should do so for maximum impact. Instead of putting three or four on in dribs and drabs, put them all on at once and with something like 25 minutes to go, so they can make an impression. The way Scotland used their replacements was very canny." He says he is resigned to not starting against France but hopes to get on at some point.

In Robinson's ideal world his players would not appear for their clubs the week before a Test. Last weekend Dallaglio, who is barely breaking sweat in the Red Rose outfit, was leading Wasps to a victory over Sale less than 24 hours after walking off Murrayfield, and was given a reminder of Anglo-French competition when Sébastien Chabal stamped all over his chest.

Meanwhile White, the Scotland skipper who plies his trade with Sale, was being given a well-earned rest, and on Friday he was driving through heavy snow from Dundee to Aberdeen to pick up a new Range Rover. Scotland's victories over France and England have given them a chance of the championship, and on Saturday they will have Scott Murray back to strengthen their line-out against Ireland in Dublin.

"Lansdowne Road is one of the hardest places to visit but we've got a chance," White said. "We're still evolving. We've worked very hard on our defence but I didn't think we'd have to make as many tackles as we did against England. That means we didn't have as much ball as I would have liked, but England are very good at keeping it. The result had produced an amazing feel-good factor in Scotland, but going very quickly from zero to hero can work both ways."

After the epic rearguard action in Edinburgh White had time for only the briefest of words with his Sale team-mate Hodgson. "We didn't talk about the game." From an English point of view it's just as well.

Central Casting: Four to unblock the midfield

STUART ABBOTT: More a product of Stellenbosch University than the Premiership, which tends to go in for what Lawrence Dallaglio describes as "attritional bullshit". Scored a try on his Test debut against Wales in Cardiff in 2003, when England tries were in plentiful supply. Has skill and pace and is most comfortable with the ball in his hands.

OLLY BARKLEY: Spurned a trial with Arsenal to make his mark in rugby. Played in all but one of England's eight Tests last year and has just recovered from injury. Can give England options - has a kicking game, à la Mike Catt, if they prefer a risk-free style and is also clever at breaking down defences.

JOSH LEWSEY: Thanks to a cock-up on the personnel front, the wing-centre has found himself at full-back, where his Wasps team-mate Mark van Gisbergen should be operating. Van Gisbergen has been given even shorter shrift by Joe Lydon, the backs coach, than Mathew Tait, who is in the Commonwealth Games sevens squad with the likes of Dan Luger, Henry Paul and Tom Varndell. Lewsey prefers centre - play him there.

OLLIE SMITH: Missed yesterday's Powergen game with a slight neck injury but Leicester say he is playing as well as ever. In the dark-horse stakes, Smith, once popular with the Red Rose hierarchy, is now Black Beauty. Has been overtaken in the pecking order by Northampton's Jon Clarke.

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