We are now entering purdah time for the coaches of Rugby World Cup teams – the period with twelve days to go to the opening match [England v Fiji at Twickenham Stadium – Friday 18th September, kick-off 8.00pm] when the squad selections are done, the ‘warm up’ matches are over and all that is left is the worrying … over any injuries to key players, or indeed to any players, the lack of cohesion as displayed in recent match action (as opposed to on the training park when things always seem to go well) and now the detailed analysis of your group stage opposition.
I watched England’s 21-13 victory over Ireland – reigning and twice in succession Six Nations champions – at HQ yesterday live on television.
After a pair of curate’s egg performances in August against France – and the pack having been receiving end of a tough de-briefing for its lacklustre outing in Paris – I was expecting the home team to come out firing and this they duly did. Ireland were immediately on the back foot and 15-3 down by the half-hour (through tries by Johnny May and Anthony Watson, both looking on peak form) and it could have been seven to ten points more.
At this stage of the run-up into a major tournament, as an observer I was looking for signs beyond the fact that players are gloriously sleek-fit, which will surely be uniformly true, and in the right mind-set (they shouldn’t be in the squad if not), i.e. little indicators that under huge intensity they are instinctively making the right decisions.
First choice fly-half George Ford had a dismal first 40 minutes in Paris and needed a strong showing here to prove he’s rebuffing the late challenge of Owen Farrell being mentioned by head coach Lancaster last week.
Generally as I had hoped, he gave it. He’s a more creative and ‘game aware’ general that Farrell, but a slightly less nailed-on metronomic scorer of place kicks. When Farrell came on with 20 minutes to go he confirmed his rock solid reputation on the latter score but made one or two inelegant choices in midfield play so (for me) Ford is the man in possession – which doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that he’ll be picked to play against Fiji. In tournaments you have to pick horses for courses and sometimes save your key men for the ‘biggest’ matches.
Elsewhere, as hinted, the ‘back three’ all did well. Rust colleague Derek Williams – he of Quins persuasion – foams at the mouth whenever full back Mike Brown’s place is questioned (personally I’m an Andy Goode supporter because of the Saracen’s superior all-round footballing skills) but I have to admit that Brown was back to his very best yesterday after his recent concussion problems. He’s practically worth his place for his ability under the high ball alone.
In midfield Barritt and Joseph (starting together for the first time) did enough to show they’ll be the first team centres. Ben Youngs cemented his position at scrum half.
In the pack, I don’t know why, Joe Marler at loose head seems about ten percent below his best at the coal face.
Marginally I’d tend to opt for Jamie George at hooker over Tom Youngs, simply because George is a coming man and the latter looks a tad over-trained. Cole at tight-head is immoveable as England top man though I was also impressed with Kieran Brookes when he came on in the second half.
Regarding the sought-after ‘game-awareness and split-second decision taking’ angle that I referred to earlier, I now turn to the issue of Sam Burgess (centre) who also again entered the arena in the second half yesterday.
I’m very sorry but I remain a sceptic. No matter how big a personality he is, now that he’s in the final 31, you’d expect to see clear signs of what the selectors have been testifying he’s going to contribute to games. On yesterday’s evidence all we England supporters can hope from him in this RWC is occasional little cameo appearances. His first two touches were cock-ups – over-running the ball and a straightforward spill in the tackle – and sadly I had the impression that the rest of the time he was busying himself trying to find where he could fit in to what was going on … and failing.
Ireland meanwhile were very disappointing. Yesterday meant that they’ve lost two on the bounce going into the RWC. Either that constitutes a distinct lack of momentum or their coach, Kiwi Joe Schmidt, is so cool and subtle that he’s holding a box of tricks back and deliberately not showing all his cards. Vets such as Tommy Bowe, one of my favourite wing threequarters, and flanker Sean O’Brien were underwhelming by their own majestic standards – and they were not alone.
Where does that leave things? Personally, I’m slightly concerned for the Northern Hemisphere nations.
Forget that line “There’s no such thing as a rugby friendly” – I fear that a combination of general weariness coming off last season and not enough serious match action in the past month may have gifted an advantage to their battle-hardened South Hemisphere opponents when the two clash in the group stages.
[Sandra McDonnell will be giving a personal view of the matches and key talking points throughout the 2015 Rugby World Cup.]