After all the hype, the build up, and the anticipation, if we are brutally honest, the Rugby World Cup warm ups told us very little about how Martin Johnson’s men are shaping up ahead of the tournament’s kick off in New Zealand next week.
England were unconvincing against Wales at Twickenham, but showed sparks of promise, they were woeful and blunt at the Millennium Stadium in the return fixture, and they were dominant in Dublin, albeit against an Ireland team struggling to find their own form and hit with injuries in several key positions.
Two wins out of three is a decent return and it was good to see England get over their Six Nations Grand Slam disappointment by beating the Irish in Dublin. There remain, however, several concerns for Martin Johnson and his coaching team ahead of the Rugby World Cup and time to iron them out is rapidly fading.
Consistency in the fly half position. This is a tough one, but the reality it seems is that Martin Johnson is set on picking Jonny Wilkinson at fly half. That’s fine. However, if he plays like he did in Dublin then England are in trouble. Admittedly Wilkinson kicked his goals, but his all round play was poor and England blew more than one try scoring opportunity as a result of his poor distribution. Wilkinson is a consummate professional and it’s unlikely we will see a repeat performance of Dublin at the Rugby World Cup, but a few more off games and Johnson will start to question him as a starter. Going into a tournament like this, it is vital that there is consistency in selection in the play making role. At this point, that consistency is not necessarily guaranteed.
A lack of clinical finishing. Wilkinson may have had an off day in Dublin, but we have seen signs throughout the Rugby World Cup warm ups that England lack the ability to be truly clinical. In Cardiff, they failed miserably to convert possession and pressure into points. Against Ireland too, England blew a number of half chances and at Test level a couple of half chances is sometimes all you get. England need to start converting half chances.
Cutting edge. This is fundamentally linked to a lack of clinical finishing, but England showed against Ireland that they are only playing with one winger that backs himself. Ben Foden has had a relatively quiet Rugby World Cup build up, but we know he is capable of creating scores out of nothing. Chris Ashton is returning from a knee injury and lacked match sharpness in Dublin, while Mark Cueto looked devoid of confidence in his own ability. Being given a ball in open space with 80 metres in front of you is ever winger’s dream, but when it happened to Cueto against Ireland, he looked like he had forgotten what to do. The issue is that if Foden and Ashton have an off day, where are England’s tries coming from out wide? Would England benefit from a rethink on the left wing, replacing Cueto with Delon Armitage?
The contact area. England’s lack of a genuine out and out openside flanker is a problem which is beginning to become increasingly obvious for all to see. Against Wales, England had no reply to the breakdown work of Sam Warburton. Warburton may be rapidly establishing himself as a world class 7, but Richie McCaw and David Pocock still represent a bigger threat. If England are to beat the big sides, one of the back row really needs to step up at the breakdown.
Reasons for optimism
The front row. With Andy Sheridan now fit and Steve Thompson rediscovering his best form, England’s strength in depth in the front row is cause for great optimism. Against teams like Argentina, England can deploy a huge front row, but they also have the ability to replace them with a more mobile contingent in the later stages of games. Successful World Cup assaults are often built on dominance at the scrum and with England’s options, they will certainly be a threat to all comers at scrum time.
The midfield. This could come back to haunt me, but after Saturday’s display in Dublin, the England midfield finally gives fans cause for hope. The partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Mike Tindall blossomed at the Aviva Stadium. They have a long way to go, but their sheer physicality in attack and defence, allied with a few deft touches, from Tindall especially, will have made World Cup opponents sit up and take notice. No longer is England’s midfield devoid of ideas and penetration. If injuries occur, however, I will be asking for the opportunity to move this point into the concerns column as England’s midfield options are limited at best once you move past Manu and Tindall.
Ferocity. We saw it at Twickenham; it was nowhere to be found in Cardiff, but in Dublin England once again showed the ferocity they will require if they are to make any sort of mark at the World Cup. That desire to make tackles, to compete at the breakdown, and not to take a backward step is something that every great team possesses. England, however, cannot afford to try and switch it on and off, it doesn’t work. We must see it from minute one for the duration of the tournament.
Here we go again
Now can you see what I mean? There is as much to get excited about as there is to worry about for England fans. The warm up games were supposed to fill us with confidence, but instead they have made us even more uncertain. But that’s all part of the magic of the World Cup. Form books go out of the window and winning is all that matters, at all costs.
Remember, England didn’t have a chance in 2007……