In the wake of the Sunday’s stuttering victory against Georgia, James Haskell has openly called for individual players within the England set up to be held accountable for their contribution towards the team’s average start to their Rugby World Cup campaign.
It’s refreshing to hear this from a player within the camp and it brings up a valid point.
Sometimes in Rugby World Cup competitions, teams are just outplayed by other teams. A team who was supposed to win a game doesn’t win, but the reason behind it is that the other team outperformed them on the day. It happens, can be accepted and the team move on and work on their identified weaknesses.
The problem with this England squad is altogether different.
Architects of their own mediocrity
England have made some poor decisions over the last twelve months, as well as some very questionable decisions in the immediate build up to the Rugby World Cup. England are responsible for putting their own collective backs against the wall in some regards and we are now beginning to see the fruits of these poor decisions.
Pick a 10, any 10
The fly half role is the single most important position on the pitch; he’s your play maker and the scorer of most of your points. The argument in the months leading up to the Rugby World Cup was that England were blessed in this position. Toby Flood had a strong Six Nations, apart from a wobble against Ireland, and England had the luxury of bringing the world’s leading points scorer off the bench to close out tight games if necessary.
And then, everything changed.
A couple of below par performances from Flood and the England coaching staff decided to pick Wilkinson instead. The only problem is that Toby Flood is a confidence player and this would have been a huge psychological blow. Wilkinson has since shown flashes, but at the World Cup has been below average to say the least. His goal kicking has been thoroughly inconsistent and he has failed to bring the like of Ashton, Foden, and Tuilagi into the game to any meaningful degree.
On Sunday, Toby Flood got the chance to stake his claim for the 10 shirt. Instead of doing that, he looked under confident and laboured, experiencing the same problems in terms of marshalling the backline as Wilkinson, something which comes to Flood with consummate ease when he is on top form.
The result is that England have a dilemma in the fly half position. Both Wilkinson and Flood are underperforming. One of them needs to step up his game, or England are unlikely to progress much further than the pool stages. The question is which one?
The bigger question, however, is could all this have been avoided if the England management had stuck with Flood in the first place?
The openside debate
It’s a debate that has been raging in rugby circles for some time now and something that England have taken no notice of. World Class sides that wish to win a Rugby World Cup need an out-and-out openside flanker.
The breakdown is one of the most critical facets of a game and at this Rugby World Cup could be one of the margins by which the eventual winner is decided. Australia have Pocock, the All Blacks have McCaw, the French have Dusautoir, Wales have Sam Warburton, and the English have……..
That’s the point.
England have taken an injury prone Lewis Moody as their only option at 7. Moody is a converted 6 anyway, but his injury problems mean England lack any strength in that department, and it is beginning to show. England are looking uncompetitive at the breakdown and are not slowing opposition ball down effectively, or getting enough quick ball themselves, which are the jobs of your openside.
Something has to be done in this department. It may even require giving Tom Wood the 7 shirt and picking Lewis Moody at 6, now that Hendre Fourie is not a feasible late injury call up due to his shoulder surgery.
The reality is, however, that the Six Nations Grand Slam game in Dublin highlighted England’s lack of a genuine openside, as did both the World Cup warm up games against Wales.
Surely this is something that could have been prevented by picking a more specialist 7 in the squad like Fourie in the first place.
Picking injured players
Rugby World Cups are long and arduous events. The rest time between games is relatively short, and the games come thick and fast. Players don’t have vast swathes of time at their disposal to recover from knocks sustained during games. Picking players who are injured to go to the Rugby World Cup, therefore, is verging on the insane.
England did it, and are starting to pay the price.
Andy Sheridan was the first to go home. He went to the Rugby World Cup allegedly fit, but lasted just one game before he went home. Although you have to feel sorry for Andy, you have to question whether he was fully fit in the first place, especially given his long history of injuries.
In addition, Lewis Moody was the other big call. After missing the first game, Moody looked ok in the second game, but it is going to take him a few games to find his best form. The issue, however, is that his latest injury is to a knee that he has already had prior issues with. With Thomas Waldrom called up as cover for the injured Nick Easter, and Hendre Fourie now out of the equation, one has to wonder what happens if all doesn’t go according to plan for Moody.
Picking injured players, with long histories of injuries, was a huge call by Martin Johnson. So far things haven’t gone too badly, but we are only two games into a long tournament. It’s a worry that could just have been avoided.
Settling on combinations
Not to harp on too much about England’s centre pairing, but it is a problem which could quite easily have been avoided. For over a year, England picked Shontayne Hape at 12. For over a year, Hape underperformed in an England shirt and questions were asked. Questions it seems that the England coaching staff were completely oblivious to.
In the final game of the Rugby World Cup warm ups, England finally picked Manu Tuilagi and Mike Tindall in the centres. Problem solved?
You can’t just take a young player, throw him into international rugby and expect him to take to it without issues. In the first game, Tuilagi was phenomenal. Since, however, he has taken time to adjust, and quite rightly so. Tuilagi is an exceptional athlete, but far more is required to be an international class 13.
So far at this World Cup, Manu Tuilagi has performed well. You just have to question if he would be performing better if he had played all three warm up games with Mike Tindall, or even been selected during the Six Nations. This is something England easily have done something about. Centre pairings take time to mature and there has to be a level of understanding between 12 and 13 that is perhaps not yet present between Tindall and Tuilagi. It may come, but the process could just have been made that little bit easier with a few harder calls earlier on in the year.
Hope lives on
England may well have stacked the odds against themselves, but if this England team starts to fire then they are capable of great things. The reality is, however, that their success may end up being in spite of the choices they made along the way, no because of them.