Some two seasons now into my ‘break’ from Quins – a state of mind akin to that of a recovering alcoholic, i.e. (medical folklore has it) never cured but at best in ongoing temporary remission – yesterday I settled down with family and friends to watch the final afternoon of 2019 Six Nations rugby.
It was an experience enhanced by the presence of a neighbour who had dropped by to join us for the extraordinary clash between England and Scotland for the simple reason that when non-rugby sports fans can point to team weaknesses as bluntly as any aficionado you sense that they must be mining at the sorry coalface of essential truths.
His repetitive frustrated exclamations at the unfolding fecklessness of England’s second half performance were symptoms of a perfect case in point.
You didn’t need to be a rugby specialist to spot the key problem, i.e. the continuing absence of suitably incisive on-the-field ‘thinking on the hoof’ by the supposed team leadership group.
Here I don’t want to become embroiled in either a general discourse upon the importance of captaincy and leadership in a team sport or indeed the classic conundrum of whether (as is traditional in Australian sport) you first choose your best team and only then your captain, or alternatively (as in the case of Mike Brearley and England cricket) you pick your best captain even if his selection as a player might be questionable.
Suffice it to state here that England rugby has a captaincy issue for some time.
For the first three plus seasons of coach Eddie Jones’ time in office he chose Dylan Hartley as his skipper even though the Northampton hooker, never an obvious stand-out player on the field, was widely regarded as not the best squad member in his position.
One had assumed that he must be an understated source of insightful charismatic leadership and mental strength in the Brearley tradition for Jones to persevere with him.
This charitable view of Hartley’s importance to the team was given the lie with bells on during the infamous 2017 Six Nations England v Italy match at Twickenham when the visitors took advantage of the precise laws surrounding the maul to bamboozle the England team by deliberately – but quite legally – taking up a series of offside positions whenever England had possession of the ball.
Hartley was clearly as nonplussed as his men by the development but, more tellingly, was also plainly incapable of dealing with it, either under his own steam or by calling a forwards’ (or any other) huddle in order to analyse the problem and solve it.
Hartley’s subsequent recurring concussion and knee injury problems have removed him from the scene but hitherto Jones has given the impression that in his eyes these are temporary issues and that when Hartley regains full fitness he will automatically return both to the squad and captaincy.
In the meantime, however, Jones has passed the captain’s metaphorical arm band – and while he was at it also the vital fly half position – to Owen Farrell, the feisty, determined midfielder who doubles as England’s main place kicker, a skill at which he is world class.
Yesterday in his post-match interview after the 38-38 draw Eddie Jones quite rightly admitted that England had a recurring problem with ‘closing out’ matches, i.e. taking control and squeezing the life out of teams which they had initially grabbed by the jugular and subdued with a combination of verve and scintillating attacking play that had swept all before it with ease and given every promise of producing a basketball-score of further points before the final whistle was blown.
In the 2018 Six Nations, on the following summer tour of South Africa and in particular this year’s Six Nations loss to Wales, however, there had been inexplicable instances of England playing like legendary Rugby World Cup champions-in-waiting for up half a game and then suddenly – as if at the flick of a switch – going off the boil, becoming complacent or unfocused, or (alternatively) simply being outplayed, out-thought or even possibly simply rendered impotent when presented with the unexpected.
Yesterday’s was the clearest and most extreme example of all.
The ITV studio chat at half time – at which the score was 31-7 in England’s favour, albeit the seeds of what was to follow had already been sown just before the break when Farrell gifted a try to the visitors by allowing a kick to be charged down, an unforgivable error for a play-maker to make at this level – was spent exclusively discussing the imminent death of Scottish rugby after what the pundits present – Sir Clive Woodward, Sir Ian McGeechan and Jonny Wilkinson – all agreed was one of the most inept first-half performances by an international team in recent memory (a statement that damningly encompassed all Italy’s games).
Last night Jones went on to offer the opinion that, although the England camp knew what the problem was, it was not an easy one to deal with. It would take time to resolve, but that is what they were now going to do. He also seemed to stress that it was not specifically a captaincy issue but a general one amongst the players.
I don’t agree with Jones. I think it is a captaincy issue – and a serious one.
It’s not something to relish pointing out but in my view – as England skipper – Owen Farrell is another wrong choice.
Granted, he’s a very good international player and has inherited an extraordinary degree of mental strength and self-belief from his rightly much-celebrated and respected father, but he also has significant weaknesses.
He is not a creative ‘flair’ player like George Ford – instead he relies upon more mundane gifts finely-tuned by hard work over many years; he’s not quick at international level; he is a suspect tackler, going too high and often without using his arms, which makes him a potential liability (there was another glaring example of this yesterday which was considered by the TMO at the referee’s request); and, though undoubtedly a supreme competitor, he has little if any capacity to think outside the box, ‘charm’ officials, or get the best out of his team-mates via, depending upon the individual, a judicious choice of ‘carrot or stick’.
The fact remains that Farrell is a naturally chippy and argumentative sort who lacks an instinctive facility to deploy his interjections in conversations with those around him in a fashion that best suits the some-times critical and fraught circumstances of a moment.