Wilkinson: blame the system, not the Lions

Autumn internationals: Balshaw, Dawson and co are casualties of too many games, rather than the summer tour
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The Independent Online

This time last year Clive Woodward was in a right old state. During the autumn programme the England players staged a lightning strike at the five-star Pennyhill Park hotel in Surrey and the England manager declared that if necessary he would pull on the red rose jersey and play. The show would go on with or without them. The issue, of course, was resolved and became the catalyst for an end to the club versus country saga that had bedevilled English rugby. Woodward and his players embarked on a record 11-match winning run which came to an abrupt end in Dublin last month.

At Pennyhill Park last week Woodward was in a right old state. Announcing wholesale changes for yesterday's match against Australia at Twickenham, he admitted he was still furious about the Grand Slam that got away at Lansdowne Road.

"I wish we'd had a warm-up game before playing Ireland,'' Woodward said. "I should have stamped my foot. We were a shadow of our former selves, light years away from where we'd been playing. We hadn't been together for six months. I also got one or two selections wrong.'' Iain Balshaw and Phil Greening were among the shadow men while Matt Dawson, the captain, retired hurt. None were in the squad for the Test against the Wallabies.

The perception, reinforced by Woodward, who should know better, and Balshaw, who doesn't, is that the Lions returned from their tour to Australia not only in urgent need of R and R, but as damaged goods; that somehow under Graham Henry the silky skills refined at Twickenham had been airbrushed to the back of beyond. England, what was left of them, went on a successful tour to the US and Canada. The Lions tour? The impression given is that it set England back.

"Something happened to Iain Balshaw in the summer,'' Woodward said. "If England had gone on tour to Australia I wouldn't be sitting here talking about Balshaw or the defeat to Ireland. If we'd played Australia this week and then Ireland I'm quite sure we'd beat the Irish.''

By preferring Jason Robinson at fullback, Woodward's game plan against Australia had attack written all over it, just as it did when he switched Balshaw from the wing to full-back last season. No doubt Balshaw would subscribe to the Austin Healey view that had Woodward been coach of the Lions, everything in the garden, particularly England's, would be rosy.

Henry's approach and methods have been decried, especially by those who did not make the Test team, but Jonny Wilkinson, for one, takes a far more mature line. "After the tour it takes time to find your feet,'' the stand-off said. "Reflecting on the trip, there were a lot of things flying around in my head. There was a lot to deal with. It's a professional life. You've got to learn how to handle it. I loved being on that tour and I was so proud to say I was there.''

Wilkinson further distanced himself from the pack in his book Lions and Falcons in which he described Henry as an inspirational coach. "He wasn't a robot either. He became quite emotional at times because he so badly wanted to win.''

Nor does Wilkinson take the fashionable view that the Lions were overworked. "You were training twice a day and it was hard graft. The idea was to work hard at the start and then taper off by the time the Tests arrived. Some players were taken aback but to me it was an extension of the way I trained. The way the Lions played would have to be more intensely structured than the way England play. England's fluid style has developed over years. With the Lions there weren't enough hours in the day to develop this understanding so Graham Henry and the other coaches had to do more pre-planning, sometimes several phases ahead.

"Some people said we must have been over-physical in training but it would have been foolhardy to approach a series against Australia at half throttle. That would have been a very dangerous game.

"There were problems and they stemmed from the fact that those who had toured with the Lions in 1997 were coming at it from a very different angle. They had been part of a successful tour during which they had trained early in the morning and then been left to their devices. In Australia they wanted more spare time. Winning a Test series against the world champions has to involve sacrifices. We had to be professional.''

On one point there is mutual agreement – far too much rugby is played in the northern hemisphere. "The tour was on the back of an exhausting domestic programme and the Six Nations' Championship,'' Phil Larder, England's defensive coach who worked alongside Henry, said: "The Lions should have had 10 weeks off. There are too many matches.''

Some players have lost form, some are jaded, some injured. Balshaw has simply looked lost. "He struggled to play the type of game Graham Henry wanted the Lions to play,'' Larder added. "It was vastly different from the way England played. Our aim is a wide game, putting Balshaw into channels with a lot of space. Whether it be Bath or England he was in teams with a similar expansive style. Graham wanted a far more structured approach and Balshaw was not getting the same amount of quality ball out wide.

"There was another factor. He found the defences in Australia a lot stronger and tougher. Unfortunately, he was slow to come to terms with it. His success came in the Six Nations and none of our opponents last season tested us defensively. They will in future.''

Andy Robinson, the former Bath coach, believes Balshaw will soon be back in the running. "Players go off the boil,'' Robinson said. "We are not dealing with machines. Iain's lost confidence. He's not getting free and he's not scoring tries. But he's also being tighter marked than before because opponents know what he can do. A lot of players have gone through it. There's not much wrong with Balshaw. As soon as his confidence is back he'll be back. It's a very fine line.''