The dilemma for new England: how to mend a broken start

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The Independent Online

England, who used to be the Tiger Woods of the world rankings, appear to be in freefall following eight defeats in 11 matches.

England, who used to be the Tiger Woods of the world rankings, appear to be in freefall following eight defeats in 11 matches. When Sir Clive Woodward resigned as head coach last summer the writing, or at least a few lines of graffiti, was already on the wall. To lose in the southern hemisphere with a below- strength squad was not entirely unexpected, but successive defeats by Wales and France in the Six Nations, albeit by small margins, have left the Red Rose hierarchy and players in a state of the union to which they are wholly unfamiliar. So what has gone wrong? Here's the ABC.

A is for absent friends: particularly the current captain, Jonny Wilkinson. Former captains Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio have been replaced by capable players, but England are crying out for leadership and consistency, on and off the field. Change should be gradual. The day after Dallaglio said he was retiring from Test rugby, Woodward bade a not-so-fond farewell to Twickenham. Andy Robinson deserved his chance of promotion, but fickle selection - witness the dramatic rise and fall of young Mathew Tait and the confusion over Henry Paul - has not helped England's cause.

A is also for Andy Farrell: the rugby league star may or may not join union, but it's a sign that England are getting desperate.

A is also for the anthem: "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", which echoed around the world in November 2003. The people who wear half a sheep, having consumed the other half in the car park, have clammed up just when the country needs them. The chariot has got lower and slower.

B is for Ben Cohen: a World Cup MBE who doesn't know whether he is coming or Cohen. The Northampton wing used to score tries galore for England, but has been relegated to the bench. Appearing at centre for his club hasn't helped and the same goes for Olly Barkley, a stand-off converted into a centre.

Barkley took the longer penalties against France at Twickenham last week and missed three out of three; Charlie Hodgson missed three from short range and fluffed a drop goal at the end that would have trumped Dimitri Yachvili's six penalties for France. Leading 17-6 at half-time, England went through a tortuous second half before losing 18-17.

"We've lost our last three games by two points, two points and one point," Jason Robinson, the stand-in captain, said. "It would be panic time if we were losing by 12 or 14." Captaincy has not improved Robinson, whose tries and explosive runs from full-back have dried up.

Graham Henry, who will coach New Zealand for the summer visit of the Lions, contributed to the debate. "I guess the wow factor about the Six Nations so far is that England are not performing," Henry said. "It surprises me. With the depth of talent they've got in England it's strange it hasn't come through to the international scene."

C is for casualties and confidence: Andy Robinson has been particularly unfortunate in losing half the World Cup squad, not only through retirement but through injuries. When Hodgson took over from Wilkinson in the autumn Test against South Africa he played - and kicked - so well that few people were asking when it was that Jonny would come marching home. Yet the confidence of the Sale No 10 seems fragile to the point of non-existence if a goal kick or two misses.

Hodgson has no intention of relinquishing the role: "That would be a cop-out. I'm a strong character and I want to bounce back. It's taken a while for the team to bed in, but we're getting better and better." Squandering an 11-point lead against France does not suggest this is the case. England's defence has been a big plus, with only one try conceded in the Six Nations, but they have not shown the confidence to close down matches when hitting the front. This is a lack of experience. They had bundles of it in the World Cup, when they won games that could easily have been lost.

Where do England go from here? Unfortunately it's Lansdowne Road in Dublin next Sunday to tackle an unbeaten Ireland, but for the first time in a long time they travel as the mangiest of underdogs. In raising the spirits, this should provide the Robinsons with a bone of contention or two.

In Cardiff, where they lost the opening Championship game 11-9 to a late penalty by Gavin Henson, England displayed little or no ambition. The Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, was reminding his players that the English had been lording it over the Principality politically, socially, economically, and anything else he could think of, for longer than could be tolerated. "I used whatever was necessary to get an extra per cent out of the team," Ruddock said. In short, Wales were hungrier, but then everybody wants a piece of the world champions.

Andy Robinson, who takes defeat more personally than Sir Clive - and the knight detested every rare moment of it - has lost three of five matches since taking charge. If Wales was bad enough, what happened against France at headquarters must have been like watching a horrific car smash in slow motion.

Dave Alred, England's kicking coach, was asked about Hodgson's strike-rate before the game with France and replied that, apart from the pitch at the Millennium Stadium behaving like a "sliding carpet", everything in the garden was rosy. "We've got no problems with Charlie whatsoever," Alred said. Well, he has now.

Andy Robinson, after the crash against the French, maintained: "We lost a game we should have won. We took the ball into contact, and you know when you do that it is a lottery about whether the referee is going to give the penalty to you or the other side. We played with some real ambition at times. I thought the pack went well. They dominated the scrum, the line-out battle was good and we were able to nullify the French driving game. We will become a better side. It was one of those games where our self-control at the breakdown cost us. It is bitterly frustrating, but we will learn from it." The thing is, he doesn't have much time, and next week he cannot afford to make any more experiments.

England can expect a battle royal with the Irish forwards but tactically, and in the accumulation of points, they will have to raise their game if they are to match the form of Ronan O'Gara, who gave a distinguished performance against Scotland. Ireland are still not sure whether Brian O'Driscoll will have fully recovered from a hamstring injury. O'Driscoll was named by Woodward as captain of the northern hemisphere team for the match against the southern hemisphere in aid of the Tsunami relief fund on 5 March. It makes O'Driscoll the front-runner for the Lions job in New Zealand.

England have incentive enough to transform their position in the Six Nations. The Calcutta Cup against Scotland might not be enough to secure Lions places. Meanwhile, Andy Robinson is defiant and bemused. "We're big enough to take all that has happened on the chin. Tell me one thing that France created." Disbelief in the shires?