It is the lot of all those who seek employment as specialist correspondents and/or venture into sports punditry to steer a tricky course between making bold predictions that subsequently fail spectacularly to come to pass; being wise after an event when previously they had been quite the opposite; and, perhaps worst of all, being smug to the gills with an “I told you so” sense of triumph before final and conclusive proof of their opinions being correct has quite hit the news wires.
As a perfect example of ‘getting it wrong’, please step forward all those boxing scribes who confidently predicted the fight between then undefeated and undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson and No 7-rated ‘unknown’ Buster Douglas (a 42-1 underdog on the day) at the Tokyo Dome on 10th February 1990 was going to be just another ‘bum of the month’-type crushing victory for Tyson. It turned out, of course, to be one of the biggest upsets in sporting history and the perhaps the key staging-post on Tyson’s sad descent from the Mount Olympus of his sport to subsequent semi-pariah and parody status.
In this context, therefore, I am only going to mention in passing that right from the beginning I have been a sceptic as regards the England coaching regime of Stuart Lancaster and his chosen captain Chris Robshaw.
As an England fan, however, I remain committed to the cause and hopeful that the home team makes it to the quarter-final stage of the Rugby World Cup by somehow finding a way to beat Australia on Saturday evening.
I am certainly not one of those negative dog-in-the-manger depressives who is more comfortable with England defeats than victories, irrespective of the sport, because they appear to reinforce some semi-warped overview that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’.
There is an element now of ‘Whatever you do is wrong’ for Lancaster and his team.
If you take the charitable view that they adopted a ‘horses for courses’ approach to taking on Wales last weekend – i.e. nullify the midfield, seen as the biggest Welsh attacking threat, by picking the two centres (Barritt and Burgess) in the England squad with the greatest reputation as hard-nosed tacklers and opting for Owen Farrell at fly half over George Ford – you could argue that it nearly came off. That said, whether it was Welsh brilliance, England running out of puff, England making some strange substitutions, England’s senior players (and/or captain) making some unfortunate tactical decisions, or just plain happenchance, England lost – and that was that.
“You learn the lessons and move on, it’s one game at a time …” is a cliché beloved of all players and all coaches in all sports, but it really does apply to the England rugby squad this week as it seeks to stay in the tournament and avoid the humiliation of becoming the first host nation ever to go out of the Rugby World Cup in the group stage.
Can they do it?
It boils down to whether they opt for the New Zealand attitude to such things – i.e. ‘doing what we do’ (and paying no attention to the opposition’s plans) – or, alternatively, doing the reverse and trying to pick a side that will both nullify the opposition’s strengths and expose its weaknesses.
Simplicity demands that the former approach is preferable, not least because – since the rules demand that both teams are named at approximately the same time – you cannot with accuracy identify in advance the opposition’s likely strengths and weaknesses unless and until you know the detailed composition of their team.
Here England may ironically just have an advantage.
Australia tend to play the Kiwi/Southern Hemisphere way, which is to adopt the attitude that ‘if we can get our game on the pitch, we’ll win’ – and frankly, if the opposition manage to do similar and as a result win because they played their game better than we played ours, then – fair cop – they deserved it.
In other words, irrespective of which players Australia pick in each position, generally-speaking they going to play in the way Australia always play under their current coaching regime.
Thus England’s coaches have a stark choice. They can pick a team to designed to nullify Australia, as they did last time out against Wales, or they can forget all about that and trust that the England preferred way of playing – if delivered on the day – will prevail.
A complication here of course is that, against Wales, the England ‘nullification’ approach failed.
One might argue that in fact it nearly succeeded – for the first sixty-five minutes of the match England were ahead and seemingly in control – and that it was only a poor substitution and decision or two, a bit of ill-discipline and a failure in execution at the fateful last-minute line-out that did for them. However, ultimately, the fact is that it did fail – take a look at the numbers on the final scoreboard.
A minor issue that might be considered by the England set-up this week is whether, if delivered perfectly over the full eighty minutes, the nullification approach might prove the best way to obtain this all-important victory.
More likely, however, the best option for England (and the way they will go) is to attempt to ‘seize the day’ by selecting their team on the basis of going all-out to play in the preferred England style. Arguably it is better to go down with all guns blazing than by seeking to play a negative and/or percentage game.
[Or is it? When it’s a knock-out match, all that matters is the result – how you get it doesn’t matter a fig when afterwards you’re in the quarter-final stage of a Rugby World Cup and your opponents are on their way home].
Which brings me to perhaps the key question – what is the preferred England style?
Fifteen months ago this was a bit vague. England under Lancaster had looked a ‘bits and pieces’ team, strong in certain areas and passably good in others, by all accounts making steady yet not scintillating progress (they hadn’t yet won a Six Nations title). Quite capable of inflicting one-off defeats upon most nations but with little hard evidence that they could build momentum in a succession of matches or deliver a sustained campaign. They were formidable without ever putting the fear of God up the opposition.
Come the 2014 autumn internationals and the 2015 Six Nations, in which a certain excitement spread through the England squad and its supporters.
A major factor in this development was the arrival at fly half of George Ford (a more all-court and gifted footballer than Owen Farrell) and an informal ‘Bath axis’ amongst the backs – Ford at 10, Jonathan Joseph in the centre and Anthony Watson on the wing. Suddenly England were cutting teams – good teams – to ribbons with inventive ‘played on the hoof’ rugby. They scored a hatful of tries in the Six Nations and seemed a fast-improving force.
However, that said, they didn’t win the Six Nations title. Again.
In the RWC warm-up games the ‘new’ England style was not firing upon all cylinders. Ford had an indifferent time of it in the first encounter with France and was less dominant than normal in the opening RWC game against Fiji (mind you, he was not alone in that).
Hence – I’m trying to help here – the extraordinary England selections against Wales. England adopted the ‘horses for courses’ (meet fire with fire) approach and, clearly with defence in mind, picked a big, no nonsense, midfield of Farrell, Burgess and Barritt. Was it a sound, considered, decision in the circumstances of a vital match – or rather semi-panic, a failure of confidence in Ford and the ‘creative’ style that England had seemingly brought to the RWC?
Who knows? I don’t.
As it happened, on the evening concerned, Farrell (in particular) and Burgess did all that could have been expected of them.
Sadly, I’m afraid, Barritt – for the past three seasons (when not injured) the rock around which the England midfield was built – has been a shadow of his former self since getting back in the side this term. I’d argue that because – size apart, all professional players these days must be competent tacklers to even be considered for selection – England could and perhaps should have gone for Henry Slade or Alex Goode, two highly-creative players, at Barritt’s expense long before now.
Yesterday’s call-up for Nick Easter is a plus.
He may be 37 now, but he’s a canny operator and a highly-intelligent Number 8. He’s forgotten more about back row play than some of his colleagues know, he’s surprisingly nimble and has good hands for a heavy duty forward.
Then again, he’s a bit of an old-school maverick who tells it like it is, which definitely hasn’t helped his cause as far as Lancaster is concerned, but he’ll never let you down.
Picking Ben Morgan, coming back early from a badly-broken leg, instead of Easter for the 31-man squad must have been 50:50 call purely based upon Morgan’s reputation for carrying impact, not form. Whether or not Easter makes the 23-man squad for Saturday, he’ll be a force for good in camp.
Personally, I hope both teams ‘go for it’ on Saturday.
Australia undoubtedly will, but at the moment I am wary of predicting which way Lancaster and his staff will swing (and you might say that, provided they win, it doesn’t actually matter). They might roll the dice by picking a full-on attacking team with Ford at 10, but they might just as easily opt for something more plodding but potentially effective – e.g. a big pack that seeks to pulverise its opponents and thereby deny Australian backs the quick ball upon which they usually thrive.
One big factor will be the tackle and breakdown area.
By chance, Australia have in their squad two of the best six flankers (Number 7s) in the world – David Pocock and Michael Hooper. Recently they have taken to playing both of them in their starting team, Pocock in the Number 8 position, and it’s been proving pretty effective.
This is a problem for England as their best 7 (Steffon Armitage, the 2013-2014 European Player Of The Year) is ineligible to play because of the RFU’s policy of not selecting players who play their club rugby abroad, as Armitage does for Toulon in France. This, of course, is not an issue for Australia, who recently (for pragmatic RWC reasons) reversed its similar rule to allow players with at least 60 caps for Australia – specifically Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, ironically who also play their club rugby for Toulon – to be selected.
In any event, its back row is a now a worry for England. With Number 8 Billy Vunipola out injured for the duration (hence Nick Easter’s recall) and Ben Morgan not yet declared fit from a minor niggle … Tom Wood (at 6) on a warning after a citing scare during the Wales match … and the under-pressure Chris Robshaw (not a natural in the position) at 7 … how things go in this department will be crucial.
I am not prepared to give Rust readers a prediction of Saturday’s result. Suffice it to say that my head says Australia but my heart screams England. I cannot wait for the dice to roll.