Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Red Rose

When I was younger, I dreamed about stepping out on to a rugby field wearing a white shirt with a red rose. Of course, my ambitions weren't limited to rugby - I'd give my right arm to play in the Ashes (although that might hinder my utility to the team). The dream, of course, was thwarted by a simple lack of natural ability. No matter how much I practised, I am not blessed with particular pace, skill or strength.

This, of course, didn't curb my enthusiasm one bit. Many a happy hour was spent at Twickenham, or Edgbaston, or Wembley, or whichever stadium was temporarily located in my back garden. The result may have been contrived, the scene existing only in my own imagination. That didn't stop me putting in my full effort, nor did it make my enjoyment any less real. To have had the ability to live the dream on the big stage itself!

That is why I feel so let down by the England rugby performance against France on Sunday. England weren't outclassed - for much of the game, France were pretty ordinary too. Yet they were a team that seemed shell-shocked by the rapid lead they gifted their opponents - they seemed a team that didn't care. They didn't even concentrate on getting the basics right. Matt Dawson, for example, wasted good possession on innumerable occasions by attempting a no-look flick pass to the inside. Not the action of a team that wanted to shore up their game so as not to let the French run away with the lead any more.

Charlie Hodgson continued his irritating habit of grinning whenever he makes a catastrophic mistake, such as missing a fairly simple kick not too far from the posts. There was no passion, no intensity, no skill to the English game on Sunday. Even against a team that is better than you, good organisation, a limited game-plan and maximum effort can counter a lot of deficiencies.

Something is wrong in the England camp, and that's not just a heavy bout of gastroenteritis. The spirit that Clive Woodward engendered - the culture of winning, the culture of desiring to win, the culture of pride in playing for your country - disappeared on Sunday. I don't know if it is recoverable under Andy Robinson. But it is the loss of heart, not the style of play, which is the most worrying thing about Sunday's performance.