England’s problem is that they constantly wrestle with a collective alter ego, one which would potentially catapult them to the performance level they require, if only they would embrace it.
England need to embrace the “dark side” of their collective personality if they are to overcome Scotland this weekend and go on to make a meaningful impact in this Rugby World Cup.
The irony, however, is that their “dark side” isn’t actually the physical and brutal game that we would associate with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr Hyde. Instead, the “dark side” that England’s collective personality struggles with is characterised by open, fast flowing and creative rugby, the likes of which we saw against Romania in patches.
England’s Jekyll like persona
England’s default mentality is one which is physical and relies on the bludgeon. It is where England coach Martin Johnson seems to find comfort and solace, but it is to the detriment of their talented back line and the overall performance of the team.
England are in possession of possibly two of the most threatening strike runners in world rugby, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden. Their talents are well known and oft-recited, so I shall not repeat them here. Against Romania, we saw glimpses of what we had hoped to see throughout the Rugby World Cup, Ashton and Foden linking up in a Northampton Saints like fashion, giving England the cutting edge they so desire.
Yet Johnson persistently reaches for the bludgeon. Picking huge packs, tried and tested players who are underperforming, and expecting England to smash their way over the gain line and physically dominate their opponents.
England aren’t actually big enough to physically intimidate the best sides in world rugby. Time and again we have seen this, most notably against South Africa in the autumn and Ireland in the Six Nations.
Johnson, however, persists.
The solution: Embrace the “dark side”
While Dr Jekyll constantly struggled to control his inner demons, England need to embrace their collective Hyde. While Martin Johnson may not approve, it is how England will progress in this tournament.
After all, this England side is not wholly comfortable with the strategy they are asked to adopt by the management anyway, it goes against their natural instincts, and it shows on the pitch. When England start to hit the line at pace and Foden and Ashton are brought onto the ball frequently and given the freedom to express themselves, England look dangerous and you can see the sense of enjoyment and relief on the player’s faces.
The reality is that England’s style of play is currently a parody of their own stereotype. The problem is that the stereotype is based on the 2003 England vintage, the one led by Martin Johnson. This England team has many strengths, but the ability to bludgeon teams into submission is not one of them.
Hello Mr Hyde
Without debating Martin Johnson’s selections too much, the selection of James Haskell at 8, Matt Stevens at loose head, and Delon Armitage are positive steps in the right direction. These are in form players who provide much more of a palpable threat than the alternatives. Delon Armitage especially deserves his start and makes England’s back three potentially devastating.
Scotland will provide a stern test on Saturday morning, of that there is no question. England, however, are more than capable of laying down a marker against Scotland and sending them home with their tail between their legs, before pushing on to the knock out stages.
Martin Johnson will be sitting in the stands, arms outstretched, offering England the potion required to control their inner demons. The team, however, need to collectively refuse. We need to see the REAL England unleashed and the Scotland game provides the perfect opportunity.
England need to embrace their collective “dark side” against Scotland and welcome Mr Hyde with open arms.