Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Quick Thoughts on England's Rugby Team

I have to say, Andy Robinson seems determined to blow away what's left of the goodwill in his tenure as England manager. It is traditional for non-English rugby fans to criticise England for playing boring rugby, although most of the time that happens because they are bitter at losing. (As for those who say that England don't score enough tries - well, if your teams stopped cheating, then there would be fewer penalties for us to kick. Stay on the right side of the ball and then the game flows better). And in any case, rugby wasn't intended to be a spectator sport. A good result is when your team wins.

Nevertheless, criticisms of boring rugby are bound to be made - and deserved - when you pick Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon in the centres. Tindall must surely be one of the most one-dimensional players going forward that England have ever picked. He's like Scott Quinnell, only with a better knack of not running away from support. Noon isn't much better. The two combined may be very strong in defence, but what it loses for England in attacking ingenuity is costing them matches, especially when you consider how frequently Hodgson makes bad decisions at number 10.

When England were unquestionably the best side in the world (I'm talking here just before the World Cup) part of their strength was that they got the ball through the backs a number of times. Josh Lewsey was talking in the Times yesterday about the long passes that Catt used to bring the back three into the game; swift distribution in the backs was key. The centres might not have been used to swashbuckling effect, but they used their passing ability to use the pace of the wings and full-back. That hasn't happened under Robinson, and it's not for a want of players better than Tindall. Why Stuart Abbott or Olly Barkley haven't been given a chance at 12 is beyond me (well, why Barkley doesn't get picked at 10 is beyond me too, but that's a different matter).

Of course, England's success at the World Cup in 2003 was in no small part due to the fact that they had three men who would have been automatic, no-brain choices in any team at the time, with no questions asked. Martin Johnson and Richard Hill solidified the pack, and Jonny Wilkinson was a far, far better player than was appreciated by many rugby writers. Not only did the 20 yards he put on each kick mean that England were defending a large field most of the time, but his decision-making was usually excellent (although it still aided him to have a second fly-half playing at 12). And hoping for a team to play at that level when they pretty much lost each of those key players at once is somewhat optimistic, to say the least.

That doesn't hide the fact that England have been losing games they should have won. Partly that is down to Choker Charlie Hodgson and his inability to kick the ball between the uprights. Had he possessed any kicking ability worth speaking of, England's 4-game losing streak last year would have been the continuation of a winning streak and no-one would be talking of a crisis. But, the lack of inventiveness in midfield isn't helping us at all. The pack isn't as good as it was, and that is meaning that slow ball is the norm. That makes it harder to launch an attack, granted, but when the ball-carrier keeps ploughing into the tackle the problem is compounded. In Lewsey we have one of the world's best full-backs; in Cueto we have a winger who continuously runs excellent angles. Why the hell aren't we using them?

I hope that eventually someone in the England set-up gets fed up with being called a purveyor of boring rugby. Because that way, the gripes will continue even further. England will start winning again.