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Boks provide reality check for Johnson's England

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Bryn Palmer | 22:16 UK time, Saturday, 27 November 2010


"Well that wasn't in the script," bemoaned one England supporter as he contemplated a depressing end to an otherwise encouraging autumn series.

"It was like the England of 12 months ago," added Mr Grumpy of Twickenham, and he had a point.

In the lack of discipline and composure, the proliferation of handling errors and the muddled thinking under pressure, England's performance in their 21-11 defeat by South Africa turned back the clock to the darker days of Martin Johnson's managerial regime.

But Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Shontayne Hape, Ben Youngs, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes hadn't even started a Test 12 months ago.

They are barely out of nappies in international terms, even if they have shown enough already to suggest they will be competing at the highest level for a good while yet.

This was their first exposure to the Springboks however, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.

On a bitterly cold afternoon, England provided little to warm the cockles of another 80,000-plus crowd, receiving a painful lesson in how to win Test matches from a South Africa side who had far too much nous despite being without half their first-choice team.

The crescendo of noise that engulfed Twickenham just before kick-off was replaced by a series of collective groans from the home support as the inevitability of a seventh straight defeat against these opponents dawned.

That England were still in the game at half-time, let alone the 70th minute when the Springboks made victory safe with their second try, was something of a miracle, such was the extent of the visitors' control.

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If the hosts could take anything from a match that started promisingly with Tom Croft's break-out but deteriorated badly after the opening quarter, it was their defensive resolve.

Against Australia or New Zealand, England might have been 20 points down by the interval, given the possession and territory enjoyed by the visitors, and how quickly England handed them back the initiative on the rare occasions they did win the ball.

But a combination of a ponderous Springboks midfield initially, a lack of incision out wide, and the hosts' brilliant defence contrived to somehow keep the scores level at 6-6.

One period at the end of the first quarter demonstrated the attitude coursing through this new England. South Africa spent several minutes hammering away at their line, with half-a-dozen charges repelled. When the dam finally appeared to have burst, and Victor Matfield sniffed a try, Lawes denied the Springboks skipper with a superb last-ditch tackle.

England were unfortunate with injuries, with three of their star turns in recent weeks - Chris Ashton, Croft and Toby Flood - suffering calamities in the opening half-hour.

The latter pair were both taken off, depriving England of their most potent line-out weapon and a running threat from fly-half, even if Charlie Hodgson's smart distribution offered hope and his defence stood up well.

Ashton though - despite the concerns of referee George Clancy - stayed on the field, after clattering himself while attempting to tackle Matfield in the seventh minute.

Whether the Northampton wing had recovered sufficiently - "The medics said he was good to go. I just listened to what they said," Johnson said later - appeared debatable.

Such an effervescent and dynamic presence in recent weeks, Ashton was certainly subdued for the rest of the match, rarely moving from his wing, and offered little resistance to Lwazi Mvovo as the wing brushed past him to seal victory with 10 minutes left.

The imperious Matfield, by contrast, only added to his reputation as the outstanding lock of his generation. He revealed later that he had broken a rib in the Ashton incident, but no-one would have known it for the remaining 73 minutes.

"I felt it pop out and it was sore, so I tried to stay out of contact," said the Boks skipper. "It didn´t work but I kept going, had an injection at half-time and it got better."

Matfield was a dominant presence in a stop-start game that suited the Boks down to the ground. With England constantly spilling ball and conceding penalties at regular intervals - 10 in the first half alone - South Africa had a ball in the set-pieces.

As well as winning all 17 of their own line-outs, they pilfered a couple of England's and also came out on top in the scrum, winning one against the head as well as several free-kicks and penalties.

Victor Matfield"I'll drink to that..." - Victor Matfield shares that winning feeling with a Springboks fan. Photo: Reuters

Despite missing several kicks at goal and three drop-goal attempts between them, the Steyns - Morne and Francois - kept England pinned back with a strong kicking game, aided by influential scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, a converted number 10 himself.

England, hoping to tire out the Boks pack by moving the ball wide, only succeeding in running down blind alleys, failing to make the hard yards before being smashed back by the massed ranks of voracious Springbok tacklers.

South Africa did not win by doing anything spectacular. They played a limited game, the same one that brought them the last World Cup. But they did the basics far better than England.

"The reality of Test match rugby is that if you don't do the fundamentals of the game well for 80 minutes, you don't give yourselves a chance to win," said a frustrated Johnson afterwards. "We have to understand how to play Test rugby in all its forms."

The message appeared to have sunk in within an hour of the final whistle.

Ben Foden, who raced away for a late interception try - England's first against the Boks in four Tests - to give the scoreline a more flattering look, was refreshingly honest in his assessment of why the sweet chariot had lost its bearings so completely.

"We were probably a bit too relaxed after two good wins and the performances over the past few weeks, thinking it was just all going to happen for us," Foden said.

"Everyone was waiting for someone to do something, and then people started trying stupid things, forcing passes. You have to get over the gain-line first and foremost. We just forgot the basics today."

All of which left Johnson ruminating on a fifth defeat - and one draw - from 11 Tests in 2010, and a 13th in his 25 Tests in charge.

Two wins from this series was deemed "reasonable" by new RFU chief executive John Steele beforehand, and that is what materialised.

But there was no disguising the frustration at failing to make it three out of four, not least because victory would have shown England were capable of coming up with answers to the very different questions posed by two of the big three, Australia and South Africa.

Despite the stunning nature of the triumph over Australia, which looks even more impressive after the Wallabies' 59-16 hammering of France on Saturday night, England failed the examination provided by an obdurate Springboks side.

The world champions' style may not be enough to defend their title 10 months hence, but it was too good for England.

At least Johnson doesn't need to worry so much about dampening down expectations that were understandably inflated by the spectacular win over Australia.

England's worst performance of the month was a reality check, and a jolt to recently-restored confidence, even if - as the manager observed - "There has been lots of good stuff in this series".

But there is no need for panic, or wholesale changes, on the back of this result.

A Six Nations with three successive home games - against Italy, France and Scotland - offers an opportunity for further restoration work on the old Twickenham "fortress", which has at least awoken from its slumber these past few weeks.

England haven't won anywhere but Rome in the championship under Johnson, but an opening fixture in Cardiff should now be an occasion to relish rather than fear. Victory in the Welsh capital would swiftly restore talk of possible titles and Grand Slams, even if England's final match is in Dublin.

Asked if this group of players is the one that will take England forward into next year's World Cup, Johnson was unequivocal.

"Absolutely," he replied, without hesitation. "This is one game, just as Australia was one game. The progress of this team is hugely upwards, there is no doubt about that."

Partly by accident, partly by design, England have a team again. Despite this setback, the future is still bright, even if the present is not quite as rosy as some may have thought.


  • Comment number 1.

  • Comment number 2.

    As an AB's supporter, it was good to see a Bok win as it probably means they'll keep their clown of a coach for next years RWC.
    Still, England have the makings of a very good team.

  • Comment number 3.

    As a Saffer, I know I'd have said exactly the same thing that ninetofivegrind did, had I been a Kiwi!

    We'll take the win but the bitter taste in our mouths is the reality that we'll have to endure that inept little creature for a while longer.

    Nevertheless, at least I didn't spend the whole match cringing this time. And I agree that England need not despair - they'll be serious contenders at the World Cup.

  • Comment number 4.

    Was at the match yesterday. I have to say, it was a comprehensive beating by SA. Well played to them. They controlled the game from the start and put some major hits in! I thought Piennar was particularly good....his kicking in presrue situations was awesome. And Matfield playing with a broken rib....what a trooper!

    As an Eng supporter I am happy with this Autumn series. We can mix it with the Southern Hemisphere and I am really looking forward to the 6 Nations now. What do people think of Tindall? Who else thinks that Banahan offers more in terms of an attack option? Pace, power and a useful option for cross field kicks. He needs to work on his defence though.

  • Comment number 5.

    well, I am not sure I would glorify the english defense so much as the author did. we are talking about possibly the least dynamic team on offense. i mean crash balls the whole match...either way. england seem to have a bright future. yesterday was just a bump in the road.

  • Comment number 6.

    Bryn, Courtney Lawes was having the time of his life out there yesterday... I don't agree that this would have been an unpleasant experience for him. Despite the loss he would have been buzzing over his performance, I'm sure.

    In the match SA were awesome. It really is that simple. England were dominated and forced into making mistakes all over the field. It didn't help that at times Toby Flood might as well have been wearing the green and gold.

    What yesterday highlighted to me more than anything was the importance of good kicking... Or more to the point, a good fly half.

    Toby Flood's decision making has always been questionable and although he has had a good few games and kicked very well in front of the posts, he looked very, very poor yesterday compared with his opposite number.

    Anyway, loved seeing all the big hits yesterday... It made watching the game completely worthwhile!

    Bring on the world cup! Hopefully we get the Aussies again in the quarters!

  • Comment number 7.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 8.

    Didn't see the game but by all accounts it wasn't a huge setback for England, more a reality check.

    Didn't see the France-Aus game either, but reports seem to confirm that France based their whole gameplan on the scrum - and it backfired big time.

    The two matches therefore seem to summarise the lessons to be learned from this autumn and for next year's WC: any team that wants to be in with a chance of winning needs to be able to play a variety of different types of rugby depending on the opposition.

    As things stand for example, England have the game to beat Australia, probably France, and maybe Ireland, but are not clinical enough to beat NZ and not streetwise enough to beat SA.
    Australia can beat pretty much anyone except a team that grabs them by the throat for 80 mins.
    SA can beat teams in a power game but will lose to any team that is clinical.
    France will whip weaker teams but can easily be out-thought by more intelligent outfits.

    It reamains to be seen whether anyone other than Australia really have the game to beat NZ though.

  • Comment number 9.

    England could not adapt to the SA tactic of stifling their desire to run out of their 22. Why can't an England team read the game and play accordingly? I watched Wales pressure the AB's in the same scenario and the blacks took the first tackles in their 22 and quickly recycled the ball and still had it out to the winger on their own 22 line. We lack wit!

  • Comment number 10.

    I too thought Lawes had a good game, but needed more of a bruiser alongside - Shaw would have been a better starting partner. Boks second row was awesome, and Croft's injury changed the blanace of power in the back row. England just were not strong/clever enough to get clean quick ball, and so we saw how the backs worked under pressure. De Villiers was terrific also. As a result Flood floundered, and he and Tindall struggled to find a second game plan. Youngs I hope will have learned a lot from playing on the back foot - it's a real test for him.

    Altogether an improvement in England's usual autumn performance. Six Nations - Englan will be the team to beat, but Ireland and Wales are real Heffalump traps on the road to a grand slam.

  • Comment number 11.

    Well there was some degree of consistency, two tries conceded per match and way too many penalties given away. Fortunately Auz and Samoa didn't take the points offered thus allowing England to build a lead and have the confidence (that a point lead gives) to play open rugby.
    Does anyone think Dan Parks, ROG and S.Jones will be as forgiving?

    SA were playing with at least 12 lads that would not be 1st choice come RWC2011, could England have won any of the IA with 12 of that 15 missing? highly unlikely!
    SA supporters may complain about their coaching staff, but with such a strength of depth does it matter who coaches them?
    Time for England to bring in a ref again to explain the rules to the squad before the 6N starts

  • Comment number 12.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 13.

    Firstly to those saying the Boks would be better with their big name players back - they have been useless all season with them. So maybe like Johnson did, he has stumbled across the right selection.

    I thought it was a fairly disappointing performance by England. They lacked any imagination in attack, although defensively they stood up to what was thrown at them - interestingly when Movovo decided not to charge forward like a possessed prop - England didn't know what to do.

    Australia beat France 59 - 16 yesterday in a display I would encourage any of you to find highlights of. France got a penalty try for beasting the Aussie scrum, but that was it. The rest of it was a scintillating performance - better than Englands against them, because all of their running was planned moves, lovely lines, great offloading, great spirit - THAT COULD BE REPLICATED AGAINST ANY OPPOSITION.

    England were lame yesterday, and it showed once again that we have no idea in attack.

  • Comment number 14.

    'SA were playing with at least 12 lads that would not be 1st choice come RWC2011'

    Wow... you really do know nothing about rugby.

    Matfield, Botha, Juan Smith, Spies, the Beast, M.Steyn are all nailed on 1st choices for the Boks. Others like B. Du Plessis, De Villiers, Frans Steyn (though most likely at 15) are possibles, and guys like Ruan Pienaar will probably be in the xxii...

  • Comment number 15.

    Just watching the Australia second half performance again - everytime they go wide they don't waste the next phase of play by having all their backs to the clear out work, the forwards are there, and backs reset. It means they go from back move to back move. Without slowing it down whilst the forwards have a pointless rumble.

    They use brains over brawn, particularly in the 'red zone'. They have centres who run like wings, so instead of thinking that centres are only there to set up wingers, they know that the whole lot can score.

    The Southern Hemisphere type of rugby is far more superior - and our coaching team need to get out of their little premiership bubbles (crafted in the 90s) and look to see what they are doing overseas.

    First thing to do is reinvent the centre in this Country - the game has moved on from the lump battering ram - unfortunately, Johnson who went to Arinle when in need, is blinkered by the northern hemisphere way and his own enjoyment of the physical contact as opposed to the grace and guile.

    How we play in the 6 nations is largely irrelevant come the World Cup. France were Grand Slam champions - and they just got destroyed by Australia, not a Bok style beating, a precise surgical cutting win.

  • Comment number 16.

    A topsy turvy set of autumn internationals and not just for England. France thrashed yesterday in the way Scotland were by the All Blacks, and two wins and two hefty losses for England sending mixed messages too.

    Wales were consistent at least in coming up just short on a regular basis, and Ireland unconvincing, but Scotland's win over South Africa should not be underestimated as it showed great resolve to bounce back.

    The Scots with home games against Wales, Italy and Ireland might just do a bit of damage this season, especially if they play against the England side of yesterday at Twickenham.

    As always it promises to be a gloriously unpredictable 6Nations.

  • Comment number 17.

    Thanks for all your comments.

    Re: 4) Chas. Yesterday wasn't Tindall's finest hour, certainly, and I'm sure he'll take some stick from team-mates for his drop-goal conversion attempt that hit the posts from right in front! Seriously though, the centre combination is certainly one Johnson will have to wrestle with before the Six Nations. Banahan is one option, but I wonder when Flutey's fit if he'll consider playing Flutey at 12 with Hape at 13, where he plays for Bath? Hape has the off-loading game if not the pace. What does anyone else think?

    Re: no 6) Tom - I agree that in a poor team performance, Lawes stood out again, even if we didn't see as much ball-carrying as in recent weeks. But like everyone else he spent so much time tackling, I think it took its toll on the rest of England's game. It was all too static at times, lacking crispness and variety, playing into the Boks' hands.

    Not sure you can put too much blame on Flood. England were leading 6-3 when he went off after 33 minutes! Interestingly, Johnson said afterwards: "Maybe [Flood's departure] affected us a bit more than it should have done". Remember tactics-wise, England would not have been wanting to kick to touch because they knew that was effectively just giving the ball back to SA at the line-out. That reluctance to kick the ball out led to several poor decisions (eg Foden throwing that wild pass out of the tackle to Cueto 5m from his own line), but that's a knock-on effect of the Boks' brilliance at the line-out.

    BTW England can't get Aussies in RWC quarter-finals. If they win their group it will most likely be France (winnable) in the last eight. If they finish second, they'd probably face the All Blacks (likely exit).

    Re: 8) hermmy. Nice analysis. That's the beauty of Test rugby at the highest level. Although the top 5 or 6 teams can all beat each other, the characteristics of each determine the tactics and certain match-ups seem to favour one team over the other. Nine months out, I still think the most likely RWC final is Australia v NZ, although an Australia v England semi could be interesting!

  • Comment number 18.

    Couldn't believe how every single English journalist and pundit I read in the week before the game gave the Boks no chance whatsoever. Strange, given that the Boks often perform better when 'underdogs', and they always have the players and mentality to pull a decent, committed performance out of the bag. Perhaps this is a much needed reality check for England in the lead up to next year's WC, which should at least prevent the press from getting too ahead of themselves.

  • Comment number 19.

    All in all I’d say England could and should have won the game yesterday. Yes I’m an Englishman and I support my country, but I’m not overly blinkered.

    In the first half SA were savvy and played by fat the better positional rugby. England tried to make headway but the constant infringements made it difficult to mount anything like sustained pressure. Whenever the SA were able they pinned England back. Good sound rugby I’d say - if not expansive and eye catching.

    I felt sorry for Ashton as the clash that caused what I believe to be concussion, did, like it would, knocked the better part of his game out of him. It does beg the question, why was he allowed to play if he'd suffered concussion?

    Anyway, the loss of Croft and Flood, etc, did effected our game plan and continuity. I have to say Matfield was fantastic in the line out, as he always is.

    The reason I think England should have won is that SA played tight, smart rugby and there defence was very good but it took up until the 75th min before England produced an attacking, front foot off load. If we'd done that while we were sniffing out a try then we'd have put at least two or three tries to bed, and that's without the breakaway try at the end. On several occasions we had overlaps but failed to put the ball through the hands and make use of the space.

    The SA seemed to understand our game plan and committed more to the rucks and attempted turn over’s. To me watching from high in the stands (freezing my butt off) we were looking to try and create as many overlaps and try scoring opportunities as we could and did it by limiting the numbers driving over, etc. Just a shame we couldn't take them when they came begging.

    However, I’m glad we played ball in hand type rugby, even though we were playing static rugby for ten minutes in the second half.

    This is no dig at the SA and the played the smarter rugby and won the match, and yes I know they had several men out of the squad, etc, but I’d much rather play (or try) to play like the Kiwis or the Aussies.


  • Comment number 20.

    Bryn and Co.

    It is laregly irrelevant who we play at centre because our game plan and vision is not suited to creativity in those positions.

    The problem is we negate most attacking moves with a blinkered view of what players should be doing. The ball gets spun out wide to a winger and the centres and full back are first there to clear out. They are not forwards so it takes longer to secure the ball. The next phase then goes to forwards, who trundle it up whilst the backs get into position.

    Its too slow. The Australia backs very rarely do the clearing out, so there backs are ready to go straight away. The forwards work in different pods on the right and left and are always there to clear out, leaving the backs time to get excited by running rugby.

    When their forwards are in the line they know where and how to run - its not a surprise when they get the ball. Yesterday, they had Ashley Cooper at 13 (Australias second most capped 15), Barnes at 12 (can play 10) Cooper at 10 (can play 12/15), O'Connor on one wing (play maker) and Mitchell on the other - as an out and out finisher.

    None of these are flankers in the guise of centres. All these players can create and take holes.

    At best Hape and Tindall can just about create a hole - although very rarely.

    Its a Northern Hemisphere approach that is killing us.

    Our game against Australia was an oddity - we could not score in 5m line when the defence was organised - for the reasons explained above. But in the deconstructed game at turnover and from deep - we were making massive yards from the first attack against a beleaguered defence.

    As soon as the defence is structured, we are useless and slow. Like all the NH nations.

    Its not the selection that is the worry - its the game plan.

  • Comment number 21.

    England were well and truly beaten up yesterday. Didn't look like world beaters to me!!!

  • Comment number 22.

    Disappointed by Bryn's narrow reply. On current form England cannot take qualification from their group in the WC for granted, let alone think of the last eight, no more than Scotland or Argentina can.

    It is ANY two from three at the moment, let's see how Argentina go today.
    For my money there is very little to choose between the three teams. Whereas Scotland were pathetic against the All Blacks they have won five of their last six now (Argentina away twice, Ireland away, and the Boks and Samoa at home, and they have improved since the draw with England in the 6N). England were very good against Australia, poor yesterday.

    Even Wales managed to get in among the Blacks for an hour yesterday. The top seven or eight in the World are separated by very little right now.

    Does anyone have possession and territory stats from yesterday's England game? I would be surprised if SA were far short of 2/3 on both, and you cannot expect to win games on those stats.

    I am not being anti-English but I do think people need to be realistic. I thought Martin Johnston's analysis was closer to the truth yesterday than Bryn's.

  • Comment number 23.

    "Tinoflyer wrote:

    Firstly to those saying the Boks would be better with their big name players back - they have been useless all season with them. So maybe like Johnson did, he has stumbled across the right selection."

    No, key players like Fourie du Preez and Heinrich Brussouw (their two best players in 2009) didn't play all season. So certainly wouldn't call this the 'right selection'.

  • Comment number 24.


    Fair point, but we are yet to see Fourie get a spell under the new way of rugby that South Africa has yet to adapt to. The Rugby of Australia and NZ have progressed and new laws about the breakdown mean the type of rugby Fourie was involved with at the Boks has moved on.

    Fourie had the best game management skills of any number 9 in 07 and 08 - but there has been a massive change in rugby laws and interpretation - the box kick that the Boks relied on so heavily for example is on the way out.

    Two years ago in the tri nations, the ABs bravely ran everything that the Boks kicked at them - but were against it because of the laws. So the Boks kept kicking and they kept winning penalties.

    It will be interesting to see if he can help the Boks play the type of rugby needed, or if Pienaar maybe the longer term solution.

    Concede on Brussow - he is fairly awesome, but the comment was based on those who were saying the Boks are missing 10+ players.

  • Comment number 25.

    What is it with Tindall . He is appalling going forward. ok he defends well but his handling, off loading, passing, pace are not of World cup winning standard.

    I cannot understand why he was kept on for the full match. He looked none to bothered at the end either.

    He should be used sparingly.

  • Comment number 26.

    Given the way that the game was going with England being outmuscled up front, I thought that it showed a depressing English conservatism to stick with Fourrie as the BR replacement when Croft went off.. Incidentally the injuries to Croft and Flood are something of a worrying pattern, and England suffered physically from their loss.

    There have been so many games when the whole balance of a reasonable English team has been badly upset by the early loss of a physical BR meaning two number 7's- Mike Teague famously from the kick-off against Wales. Joe Worsley also v Wales..

    The courageous thing yesterday would have been to send on Shaw into the second row and move Lawes to blind side.. The Scots beat the AB with a second row as a flanker.

    And as the game showed, psychologically English backs do not really understand how to play behind a pack that does not lay a foundation.


  • Comment number 27.


    I and many would agree, but you have to remember that this is Johnson who has never really been proactive in his selection. It took way too long to get Foden, Ashton and Lawes into the team.

    Remember Johnson went for Arinle and Noon ahead of anything progressive. He opted for Deacon ahead of Lawes, and Monye out of position ahead of Foden. I firmly believe that these Coaches are scared by the sheer running talent of some of these players - its like they are too maverick for a rather stifling game plan.

    Armitage criticised the England coaching for one of the reasons for loss of form - he went in a running rugby player and then was coached into performing differently to why he was selected. Its no shock that although he back to awesome form for Irish, that he is still not getting a look in behind Tindall and Banahan who has only ever played a handful (2 0r 3) of games for Bath at centre.

    Johnson wants centres who are more like flankers - the game has moved on, its about time our coaching team did.

  • Comment number 28.

    I hope Johnson does not opt for a center combo of Flutey and Hape. Hape has not had one decent game for Bath at 13. All Hape's better performances have come at 12. Hape will be in exactly the same boat as Tindall at 13, he will offer nothing as an attacking force on the outside. Hape has looked at home playing 12, so now lets look to play a more fleet footed 13. I think its about time Tait was actually given a go in an improving team alongside an IC who can punch holes and off load.

  • Comment number 29.

    I think we have been here before. England have one good result, and it was a good result and the whole of England think they are World beaters. You are not a World class team as you have no one with a rugby brain, you revert to Conservative rugby and do not have the ability to play what is in front of you. It is a shame you have some class players but not a team.

  • Comment number 30.

    After the Boks returned from the November Tests against the Home Countries in December 2006,the betting for the 2007 World Cup was 11/1 South Africa and 4/7 New Zealand!
    South Africa were 5th in the betting and the other finalist,England were 6th.
    Now England are 10/1 and the Boks 6/1 and guess who are favourites at 6/4.Yes New Zealand.
    The Southern Hemisphere sides when they play in November have been at it from February with Super 14,Overseas Tours,Tri Nations and Currie Cup or the Aus/NZ equivalent before they travel North.
    This also works the other way when Northern Hemisphere sides arrive in June to play .They are also at the end of their season with injuries and players very tired.All credit must therefore be given to the Lions who nearly won in SA last year.Equally credit must be given to the All Blacks who return unbeaten now and to a maybe a lesser extent the Boks and Australia.
    The Boks left an awful lot of good players behind in Fourie Du Preez,Butch James,John Smit,Schalk Burger,Jacques Fourie,Andries Bekker,Heinrich Brussow,J P Pietersen,Danie Roussow,Guthro Steenkamp etc etc.
    I suggest you take the 6/1.

  • Comment number 31.

    England will get to the world cup final and loose to a southern hemisphere team in the final nz or sa.

  • Comment number 32.

    #24 Tinoflyer: I agree with the gist of what you said on Fourie, he did have a good kicking game and has missed the first season of the 'new' rule interpretations and will undoubtedly have to adapt.

    But I rate him as one of my favourite players and have watched a lot of his games and I think you underestimate what he contributes in an attacking sense. His vision and intelligence lead to him starting many counterattacks, just look at the 2007 WC pool game win over England for example where he had a hand in a number of tries. That was 4 years ago and he has missed a season, but he could be dangerous if fresh next year.

  • Comment number 33.

    Posted a comment in the week saying I thought Eng would win, got that one wrong! still, a positive AI series overall.
    Of the newer generation, Ashton, Lawes,Flood,Hartley, Youngs, Croft, Cole and Foden all look the real deal, despite Foden's brainstorm in his own 22 on Sat.
    Midfield is still a worry though, I'll be betting on RWC 2015 rather than next year.

  • Comment number 34.

    Re: No 20) Tinoflyer. You make a very good point. Johnson, it seems, will always go for brawn over brains, and while all backs have to be able to act like forwards at times in the modern game, it seems that physicality is valued more by England than cerebral types capable of opening up defences. I wrote a blog before the Australia game pondering what Johnson would give to be able to call on playmakers of the quality of Cooper, Giteau, Barnes etc. Against organised defences like South Africa yesterday, rather than the more open affair against the Aussies, these players are the ones who make the difference. Despite Flood looking more comfortable at number 10, England - or the other home nations for that matter - don't seem to have those sort of players in midfield to call upon. James Hook is the only British player of a similar vein that springs to mind. Anyone else?

    Re: no 22) hawick - I agree that England are far from guaranteed to qualify from their group at the RWC next year, although when it comes to World Cups, you have to admit their recent history suggests they will find a way. I think they´ll probably beat Argentina, who don´t appear as strong as they did in 07 (although they are missing Hernandez at the moment) but the Scotland game - the final one in the group - will be intriguing to say the least. What chance Andy Robinson pulling out a momentous win against his old employers? Pretty reasonable I'd say.

  • Comment number 35.

    "But there is no need for panic, or wholesale changes, on the back of this result." Probably England now has a sid which will be competitive in ther Six Nations, so perforce I agree wholeheartedly, but I'd say that there are grounds for some concern, and I think that, with the impending World Cup in mind, some changes will be necessary.

    I know that this cuts staight across the grain of popular sentiment, but I for one won't be too surprised to find Shaw and Borthwick back locking the England scrum for the rest of the season: the current pair, much as one might have wished otherwise, haven't been good at really imposing themselves against the best in the world. I shalln't be surprised to find Worsley back in the loose forwards, either: he seems to be made of sterner stuff than Croft and it is clear that more is needed defensively from England's back row. I have half a notion that Haskell may yet come good at eighth man, given solid grafters at flank, and another half a mind that Croft might eventually settle in there, with the same precondition. At fly-half, Wilkinson's heavy tackling, strength on his feet and solid tactical boot would be welcome if he could recover from chronic injury and return to form. I certainly expect to see a different centre pairing take the field if England is to compete for the World Cup, with tackling being the defining feature. Flutey's return wouldn't surprise me greatly: I think his defensive alignment is better than anything we've seen in the side which has played the Autumn internationals, and his tackling is rliable when those around him ar doing their bit.

    As to concern, I just haven't seen England come good (or even signs that they might come good) against the very best with a high-risk approach. It wouldn't surprise me to find Johnson rehearsing a low-risk approach at least as a tactical option throughout the Six Nations.

    What do you think? Am I an advocate of panic and/or wholesale changes on the back of the result against South Africa, or am I an advocate of supposing that it would be wiser not to hope that it will be one of France, Ireland, Wales, Italy or Scotland which will have to be beaten in the World Cup, but rather one of the sides which has just beaten England quite soundly?

    Since I am saying unpopular things, just a word to the detractors of de Villiers as coach of the South African team: while I'm sure that many simply echo a view expressed by others, many of his domestic detractors seem basically just to resent his racial antecedents, howling about his occasional un-careful points of view while saying little about the gaffes of many of his predecessors, and religiously finding fault with his every move in the confidence of events proving them right fom time to time. His results haven't seemed too appalling to me (witness Saturday), his social and coaching style don't strike me as much more awful than his predecessors' (I'm old enough to recall Danie Craven and Nelie Smith, let alone Harry Viljoen, Rudolf Straeuli, Andre Markgraaff and Nick Mallett - want me to quote objectionable words and deeds on the record of each?), and his devotion to his colours is not so unusual. Frankly, he seems to me to be doing the "new" South Africa proud.

    Talk about kicking beehives ... no doubt I'll be regretting this lot!

  • Comment number 36.

    To the rugby world outside SA. The Funny SA coach will stay regardless of any good/bad result. He was not the clear favourite to take the job. Politics was the reason for his appointment, and politics will make sure he stays until his contract runs out. The springbok fans have seen previously how easy a bok coach can loose his job, but this time it's different. Politics will with decision, but loose to result.

  • Comment number 37.

    I dozed off when the score was 6-3.

    Says it all really, did I miss anything?

  • Comment number 38.

    Following Segnes comment about the second row, I come back to my oft repeated theme that the balance of 456&8 is crucial- and that playing Easter at 8, like Dean Richards and John Scott worth selection because of the degree of control that such players make possible, really means a second row and a six that balance out the unit as a whole.

    This was the case with the Scott, Uttley, Neary,Beaumont and Colclough unit: and the Richards, Teague (Hall)Winterbottom (Rees),Dooley and Ackford unit. It looked against Australia that it might be the case with the Easter, Croft, Moody, Palmer and Lawes unit- though the greater physicality of the Samoans showed that there was still a way to go.. And the SA were going to be an even sterner test of sheer brutal thrust..In this respect Croft at Six is still developing; but almost certainly England would have been better served had Worsley or one of several other players been on the bench.. The loss of Croft's line-out capability against the world's best SR was obviously crucial.

    But I think that we should not lose sight of the fact that the point of Autumn internationals initially was about having the chance to experiment and try out new players- giving the NH more opportunity to test itself against "the best"- ie, the SH.


  • Comment number 39.

    N°35 segnes

    You're quite right, your comments are against the grain, and I would say not just the grain of bloggers, but also that of MJ himself who has stated that his world cup squad will be very similar to the present one.

    Barring injuries, the only players likely to force their way into the present squad will be Wilkinson, Flutey, maybe Tait and possibly a back-up b/r such as Crane. I think we can say goodbye to Borthwick and Worsley. As a former lock, I would be willing to bet that MJ knows he's got a real nugget in Lawes; and Worsley is not even worthy of shining Croft's shoes, as i'm sure MJ is also aware.

    as for my own opinion, I feel there are some England squad members who are not up to the task and have shown it this November: Haskell, Tindall, Thompson. Unfortunately, I can't see any of them being replaced as they all fulfil the "brawn" criterion discussed elsewhere.

  • Comment number 40.

    I firmly agree with everything Tinoflyer has been saying, and there are a few simple steps we could take to getting there, but I doubt we'll do anything of the sort...

    Firstly, we need forwards on both sides of the pitch to clear out rucks and provide quicker ball to the backs.

    Then we can stop picking centres to act as flankers whilst the forwards are on the wrong side and start picking centres with subtlety rather than strength.

    Then we can start to create space and stretch organised defences.

    Then we can use the back three we have properly as finishers rather than as creators and finishers.

    I have no major problem with Hape at 12, he's broken tackles, has a step, reads the game well, offloads well and can defend. So long as he works on expanding his game rather than becoming conservative I'm happy with that.

    I'm not happy with Tindall at 13, and I'm only marginally happier with Banahan, although at least Banahan can offload. However, I don't really know who else to pick. Tait has had enough chances, and is still a little too lightweight for me. Allen is too mercurial, Flutey too much like Tindall, and Noon barely warrants consideration any more.

    One player who does stand out a little way is Waldouck. I know he's injured at the moment, but if I were picking a team for the Six Nations, I'd bring him into the squad. That said, I'd probably start Banahan over Tindall and introduce Waldouck with 30 minutes to go in the first game and ask him to win a starting spot and see what happens...

  • Comment number 41.

    Thanks for thoughtful inputs as ever, hermmy and Cass. I particularly took the point that the team we've been watching this Autumn will have contained some experimental selections. Guess we'll see: no doubt we all hope that a winning formula will be revealed. Buoyed as I was by the general improvement, I must say that there still isn't convincing evidence of the comprehensive means of beating the best. Still, in my view, hermmy's advice notwithstanding, there does now seem to be a front row pool that picks itself, and likewise a scrum-half, wing and full-back pool. And I do think that Moody justifies his spot in the back-row and appears to enjoy confidence and popular support as the captain, so I don't think that confidence in the existing squad is entirely baseless, 'though I remain pretty sure that changes in personnel will be needed if England are to be world-beaters this time round.

    Mind you, I don't find it easy to anticipate MJ's thinking. Certainly it's not quite as simplistic as his many critics would have us believe. There's good sense in picking for raw brawn and belligerence when there isn't an obvious world-beater to fill a berth.

    Would like to read your views on the Australia - France encounter. I thought there were some interesting lessons to be learnt by England, especially about playing the game that suits the opponents best and wasting match-winning dominance in a crucial area in consequence.

  • Comment number 42.

    Segnes - I'm sure if those opinions on PDV had been voiced earlier on this blog there would have been more reaction!

    I'd like to add my 2p worth, as someone who is half South African and spent many years there. It is always easy to hurl accusations of 'racism' in SA's direction, for obvious reasons, but when it comes to rugby I believe things are a bit more nuanced. The average Bok supporter just wants to win, and is not concerned with the 'colour' of a player as long as he is the best in his position, and the same goes for coaching. I don't know any Bok supporters (admittedly not many hardcore Afrikaners in my circle) who care whether Bismarck is white or the Beast is black, they just rate them as players. When it comes to someone like Ralepelle, who isn't first choice for a province but constantly makes the Bok bench, things are different.

    As far as coaching goes, the Bok coach always comes in for criticism - a bit like the hysteria around the Eng football coach. All those coaches you mentioned came in for ferocious criticism at times, and someone like Straeuli was probably even less popular than PDV. I won't even dwell on someone like Markgraaf. Karel du Plessis was fired after putting 60 points on Aus and everyone I know was happy with that, despite his legendary status as a player.

    When you say that results aren't too bad, I would argue that any SA coach coming last in the Tri Nations would come under pressure, let alone the dismal performance by the backs recently and the loss to Scotland. Substitutions often make no sense and selection sometimes cost games (eg 3rd Lions test) and backline play seems to be regressing. A coach without political support would have gone by now.

    As for the "un-careful points of view" you refer to, I'll just mention two of them. His comments on the Burger 'gouging' incident brought shame and embarrassment on SA rugby around the world. His defense of a prop who beat a (black) policeman to death, while the investigation was still ongoing... well I'd hate to think what the reaction would have been if an Afrikaner had made those comments. I don't think you can simply dismiss this sort of thing as 'un-careful', and there are many more examples.

    If he had a great track record in coaching, or if the Boks were leading the way in adapting to the new interpretations perhaps opinions would be different. But they have been underachieving and I think it is a bit unfair to dismiss all criticism of him as racism. If your coach was coming up with this sort of stuff would you not be critical?

  • Comment number 43.


    Coming back to the question of selection for the Autumn Internationals, I think that it is also interesting to see just who has been part of the training 30.. Players who do not make it into the 22 may fall into at least 3 categories
    (a) those who bring the experience and qualities that might be useful- I think this applied to Worsley. Training keeps them "in the loop" and makes it easy to measure-up the competition against them.. If championships were being disputed and it was all about winning the next game they might come in.
    (b) players who have experience and qualities that may be useful to test the established squad, and just see whether they might "fit-in" with a change of direction- just in case- I think this applied to James Simpson Daniel.
    (c) Players who are considered to be ones for the future- especially in positions where injury cover is a real priority- I think that this applied to Wood.

    I think that the first category may well come into contention in the Six Nations because a good tournament would create a momentum towards the next RWC.. Of course the French would not go about it this way.. but that is another story.


  • Comment number 44.

    Thanks for insightful rejoinders, Cass and smellslikesalmon.

    Yes, on reflection I don't suppose that many countries would put up with their coaches behaving like some of the choicer picks from South Africa. And yes, my most recent visit to South Africa (a month ago) did provide me with more exposure to the hard-core redneck element than is good for anybody, and probably that does inform my response. Of course they aren't the only South African supporters - mea culpa if I seemed to be hinting at the contrary. Thanks for understanding - and don't under-estimate the residue of racism in the all matters, including rugby, over there. On the other hand, smellslikesalmon, I'm sure you'd concede that the incumbent hasn't dislodged South Africa from its standing as a team to beat, perhaps slightly after New Zealand - and it's a very competitive league.

    Here's a passing thought on your comment, "I'm sure if those opinions on PDV had been voiced earlier on this blog there would have been more reaction!": you're probably absolutely right - and in comparison with those comments de Villiers might well have come across as the voice of sweet and moderate reason.

    Cass, as ever your exposition on squad composition is most illuminating, and I hope that it will be read widely. Loved the sally on the subject of French selection.

    For what it's worth, I recognise that every rugby crowd will contain the hysterically parochial and the blinkered adorers, but I do enjoy these exchanges with thoughtful lovers of the game greatly. Thanks, blokes, and thanks to all authors of blogs which elicit this kind of chat. Hope Bryn will understand that as high praise.

  • Comment number 45.


    As regards the France game, which I have finally managed to see, it appears that France are no further forward than they were 3 years ago when Lievremont took over.

    They are very similar to Wales to my mind (although I feel Wales have progressed somewhat). Over the last 3 years they have attempted to play 'daring' running rugby, but like Wales, this approach has simply made them utterly predictable. Any good coach can watch France videos and work out how to beat them.
    But over the last year France have attempted to adapt by focusing on their real strength, which is the scrum - how far has the wonderful French flair sunk!
    The problem is the game has moved on and a purely scrum based game is not enough. Just look at how France was brutally exposed by a talented Aus team that plays intelligently, quickly, and clinically.

    France are playing catch-up now and it's way too late for WC 2011.
    Behind the scrum they have Parra, a good pool of wingers, Trin-Duc (when he actually plays), and that's about it.

  • Comment number 46.

    Thanks again, hermmy. Your analysis goes straight to what I also thought were the main issues. I agree with your view about the French tactical preoccupation. Hope England's brains trust sees the futility of the French endeavour to "play 'daring' running rugby [which has] simply made them utterly predictable" - despite that being an area of traditional French strength.

    They're in dire straits, I guess: Trinh-Duc's defensive frailty would have been exposed by Cooper and Genia. Amazing: France without a first-class fly-half! At least England has the possibility of Wilkinson's return to contemplate, and has in consequence stuck with a search for fly-halves who at least can do all the things fly-halves should be able to do, if not necessarily terribly well.

    Didn't your heart just bleed for Parra? And for the French front row when the shove petered out? (I wonder why that happened.) And I think I see now why the French selectors have been reluctant to start with Chabal at the back of the scrum, formidable drives notwithstanding.

    Of course, I should be jubilant: I live in Australia now. I've been jeered at and shouted down for suggesting that Australia could be a force to be reckoned with at the next World Cup, but Saturday's effort must do a little to justify that view. Still, I do hope the French get their act together: good tournaments require good competition! Wales, too.

  • Comment number 47.


    Thanks for your positive comment..

    I started trying to put down my thoughts on English rugby in the late seventies, when I penned a letter to the selectors-- and in those amateur days I got a reply from the Chair of Selectors saying that he had circulated my analysis to the committee, who all thought that I had summed up the state of affairs pretty well.. Such exchanges did not survive the arrival of the professional era.

    Further to my French comment, and the exchanges about the recent match- which I have not seen-- I have been married into French society since the mid-Sixties, and have been trying since at least that time to understand France and the French- not least in terms of rugby.

    Thus I was in the position many years ago to write to the selectors the secret of England beating France. For the French were the only one of the Five Nations who could accept with good grace an English victory, for we are a respected, not detested, "old enemy". And as the English game has always been based upon a solid pack, all England needed to do was to select a pack with upper body strength capable of just holding on to the ball. In those days a French team without the ball was no team at all. It worked for a long time.

    But while England likes to do things in an evolutionary and stable way, and MJ is very much in that mode, the French are revolutionaries and unstable. And at the moment- we were just over in France a three weeks ago- France is a "house divided amongst itself", torn apart by division and conflict. Some of those tensions seem to have impacted on the French Football team in the World Cup in the summer in SA: for the whole question of black players, often connected in one way or another with some of the poorest, neglected and most marginalised "black" suburbs of French cities inevitably brings them into close contact with some of the internal calamities within France.

    But one should never underestimate the fundamentals of French sport which give France an incredible capacity for just clicking in a way that England and the English can rarely manage.

    The French are almost "African" in their culture of personal development, their pursuit of bodily health, fitness and accomplishment, along with skill and insight. It always seems to me that this is promoted, rather than the reverse, by the fact that France has no tradition of games in school. French schools have no sports fields. They have gymns and everyone [like my wife] seems to do or have done gymnastics right up till 18; and played team games that are contained within gymns- basketball, volleyball and handball. I think that this is in many ways better than what can happen in Britain when a child may decide at too early an age just what "his" or "her" thing is- and then apply limits on their development.The ball skills of French forwards are legendary.

    It also seems to me that the French family system has been much stronger than the English, so that young men often still in their teens, when selected to play for France seem to possess the confidence that comes from knowing who they are within their own family, and at the end of the day, that is all that counts for them. So, while an English player may need to be nursed through many initiations into the national squad, and allowed to mature by his mid-twenties, the French (and this can happen with the Welsh too) can throw a teenager in- as Parra in his very first cap, during which he immediately bossed the game as a scrum-half should.

    All of these factors make French rugby even more unpredictable than Irish rugby used to be for so long. Perhaps only English rugby is really predictable- because essentially it believes in being predictable. Control is an English obsession- and to at least one French author- the key to an English madness because of all that "stiff-upper lippism" and emphasis on self-control.


  • Comment number 48.

    I would like to go back a few posts, to #38.

    I agree completely the 45678 balance is crucial. In Sheridan Hartley/Thompson and Cole we have a front row that, come scrum time, you could pack 5 moody's down behind and still go forward. Maybe that is an exaggeration but the trick then comes with how to fit ball carriers, lineouts, speed and handling into the other 5 and get it to gel.

    Croft for me must play 6 (when fit), he offers too much elsewhere round the park to not be considered on physical grounds. However, for SA and the more physical opponents power is needed. Worsley is one option, I rate Dan Ward-Smith too and think he could fit in alongside Shaw at second row, with Haskell and Easter providing grunt at the back. Now croft is injured maybe a lineout option would be kennedy at lock alongside lawes or shaw. Then put Haskell in at 6 and keep Moody and Easter?

  • Comment number 49.


    I agree with just about all of that.. Especially the front row.. Watching an old En-Fr game the other day I was reminded of Matt Stevens. When is his suspension up? Much will depend upon just how much he has used this time to focus on getting himself equipped to stage a come back.. That would be a nice problem, though Cole looks "the real deal".

    I thought Hartley suffered against SA because he felt a bit too much personal responsibility to "carry the battle" to the SA- in the absence of a real driving forward. He still needs a little bit more coolness and composure.. One or two line-out throws overshot, and a couple of put-ins lost in the last couple of games when the physicality level was raised. Brian Moore could tell him all about the times to be ferocious and the times to be clinical.. Hooker is a key skilled position.

    As rather a traditionalist I still think that about 6'3.5" is the real cut off point for tight driving play- though the average height has gone up. Therefore John Hall and Mike Teague were really effective in the past, but line-out second rows are usually too tall.

    As for your back-rows I have always appreciated Worsley-- though I thought that he was selected prematurely as a teenager in front of Ben Clarke. But I feel that there is always a bit of Roger Uttley about his play (Was he at school under Uttley? Harrow?)..Uttley's team-mate Peter Dixon was another great driving six.

    Over the years I have tended to divide "head-hands-and feet" players from "heart-arms-and legs" ones. To some extent both Worsley and Easter give you intelligent and skillful play allied to physicality. Croft too, and Palmer.. Lawes I am still assessing- and I think that he is as well.

    Perhaps Haskell too, who still shows signs of having succeeded in Sevens, and has not full worked out how to really exploit his physicality as part of a fifteen. In this he perhaps follows Dallaglio, whose whole game really was transformed by his time out with knee surgery, during which he bulked up to 18 stone to win back the eight spot.

    But I like what I have seen of Dan Ward Smith, a great try-scoring and buccaneering eight back in his Gloucester days; and now that he is often playing SR surely worth at least a place on the bench. On 606, however, there was comment about Easter having played at lock recently- and I think this owes a great deal to a desire to give game time to Guest, who seems to score tries with some regularity whenever he plays.

    As you say Kennedy too would seem to offer the kind of mature line-out capability that is currently offered by Palmer.


  • Comment number 50.

    Cass, I really enjoyed reading your comments on France in general and appreciate the insight. I don't know France so well and certainly wouldn't contradict you on any of that.

    On the French team however I do feel the 'unpredictability' factor is entirely absent from French rugby and has been for a good few years - perhaps all the way back to 1999 and the RWC semis.

    Whether they decide to play it tight or open, rough or smooth, never-say-die or curl-up-and-die, the French have become predictable. You can tell within 30 seconds what sort of game they're going to play and - as Australia showed on saturday and various English and Irish teams have shown over the last few years - you can work out how to beat them very early on in the game.

    This is not to say they are EASY to beat, as witnessed by their grand slams in recent years. What I'm saying is whether they are good or bad, they have become unsurprising, rather un-French in fact.

    As a great fan of French rugby from the early 70s to the late 90s, I feel sad about this state of affairs: an objective look at the last 10 years shows that their N°1 (and sometimes only) strength is the scrum. Without it they look bereft of ideas, and their backs in particular look no more than journeymen most of the time, a few notable exceptions aside. (Parra, Clerc, Medard).

    Where are the Blancos, Sellas, Sadournys, Charvets of the modern era?

  • Comment number 51.

    Hello Cass

    Yes, I agree, real interesting points! 6ft 3 is a fair cut off, Sheridan is verging on the tall side and has had shorter props get under him i.e. Australia a couple of years ago!
    With regard to Hartley, he carries the captaincy at Saints and that has seemed to calm him down a bit this season, yet, as you say, the pressure against SA was probably all it took to knock his throws off. Personally i'm a Mears fan if he recovers well from injury. In my opinion he combines the mobility of hartley with the tight skills of Thompson...

    Worsley is a gret back row, I think he came in and did a real job against Jamie Roberts 2 years ago, the man just doesn't miss tackles.
    In response to Lawes, he is still young, I think he will develop that physical edge, he plays at times, like the enforcers he follows. Against Samoa he was up for it when the handbags came out, in a couple of years it will be him knocking Stowers over.

    Haskell is in limbo i feel. He has moved to france and is now just out of the premiership loop. I think he could one day be a really explosive number 8 but now, Easter is the man. Haskell is not streetwise enough...yet.

    If Lawes does emerge as the enforcer that Botha is for SA, Thorn for NZ and Johnson was for England I think Kennedy and Lawes will be the 2015 world cup pairing at lock.

  • Comment number 52.


    I think that there are many people in France who believe that Sarkozy has taken the country far too much in the Anglo-Saxon direction - and I think that the same applies to French rugby..

    I had the good fortune in the summer of 2003 to be camping alongside someone who had played centre in the great French team captained by Jean Pierre Reeves. That Six Nations Dallaglio had come back- as I remember against Ireland- and in his new highly muscled form he had totally bossed the breakdown. With Hill and Dallaglio England dominated possession, and Clive Woodward discovered that away in Ireland a push-over try scored by Back from a line-out could be a joy forever.

    My French friend said that the French looked like boys running out on to the pitch compared to the English, who were clearly so powerful: and he confidently made England the team that everyone would have to beat in order to win the RWC that year. NZ were destroying inferior opposition. But that England eight, complete with replacements like Moody and Worsley, and JW and Dawson at half-back could just take the game by the scruff of the neck..

    And that is what they did.. Winning the RWC because over the previous year or so England had played some brilliant running rugby, so that they went into games confident of their ability to win one way or another, while that acceptance that the English might beat them-that had been a feature of the French attitude- was now fairly general.

    So I think that the French were already pre-programmed to go into a learning the English lessons mode..And many French players came to play over here in the GP..

    Before the match at Twickenham I think in 2007 I watched a build-up programme on French TV which, though France were on track -I seem to remember- for the GS, lots of the talk was "beware of the English ambush"..One old player, perhaps Didier Carambarero, remembered his first cap at Twickenham "Cathedral", where these villainous English created a deathly hush when he was trying to place-kick.

    Accustomed to French booing and whistling he was totally distracted by the power of respectful silence (something that Twickenham needs to remember)..Chabal and some others refered to the Anglo-Saxon work-ethic and all the disciplined work in the gymns that put on lots of bulk.. The English do not play around. The game was not playing around.

    But in the end it did not turn out like that really.. I missed the first couple of minutes on French TV, but by the time I switched on Worsley was off and Haskell was playing at 8. Flood was I think in his first game, with Geraghty at full-back: and the English defeated the French by running rugby.

    Since that there seems to have been a French policy of importing English players into French club rugby.. It has happened before.. Maurice Colclough was selected to play for England at the age of 19 because,on a trip to France from university, he had got as far as the Limousin, and some member of the local rugby club, seeing his size, offered him a job if he would play for the club. Soon the French selectors were making discreet enquiries about whether the English would mind them selecting this young BR/SR forward. But I think that the French have lost a great deal of their national identity and self-confidence- squeezed between Angleterre and Germany.

    But France is uniquely capable of just tearing up its "history" and starting again from first principles; and sometimes they just get it right. Perhaps the French will finally make Harinordiquay captain- then we might see something. He is not French but Basque-- and that is a great French rugby tradition.


  • Comment number 53.

    flying ginger

    I agree with just about all of that..

    I like Mears.. Actually having mentioned Harinordequay- in my recent time in France I saw Biarritz playing a Heineken Cup match with many old-English exports, including our old Sale/Norwegian open side WF.(the name keeps slipping away). Dallaglio started off as an England Seven, and (as his brother is playing SR, and Captains Norway as lock) may be expected to bulk-up.. I just hope that he is studying the arts of 8 play from a great master.

    I agree about Lawes.. though I am wondering whether the modern player is not going to have a shorter "life" than "in the old days"-- though then people like Billy Beaumont and Mervyn Davies had to retire prematurely. Having just mentioned Colclough getting his first cap at 19, I think he was then about 24 when he was selected for what turned out to be Beaumont's GS year.. So I agree about 2015.


  • Comment number 54.


    Magnus Lund? Now we are talking. I haven't seen him play since he moved to France. But ever since he was dropped by England I couldn't quite remember why... Again, he is a sort of open side Croft. Maybe his inclusion at 7 could open up for a bulkier 6 alongside a solid second row pairing.

    The England team has so many leaders in its forwards I think lineouts and scrums will take care of themselves as long as they are built around a core of 4 or so players e.g. Sheridan or Cole for scrums, Palmer, Kennedy, Croft or even Lund after this conversation as the lineout man.

    Lawes, Shaw, Easter, Haskell or Ward-Smith to provide a bit of grit and then Moody, Thompson or even Worsley as the experienced head guiding the whole operation.

    And I think this then brings us into the topic of the other discussion about French rugby. New Zealands forwards seen this Autumn, are not shackled to a gym as Brian Moore once described the 07/08 England squad. Kaino and perhaps Thorn and Read seem to have bulked, however the rest of their forwards are dynamic and powerful. They clear rucks out with speed and supporting numbers in attack. The quick ball then allows their backs to be oh so clinical and attack and score.

    The England team has very few players who could match McCaw for work rate and it is through this that I see the weakness. France may get out-muscled sometimes up front, but their backs can still do some pretty interesting stuff: clerc, medard, trinh-Duc, even Bastareaud can offload!
    The French team last six nations were able to compete at the breakdown and provide a platform for the backs to attack from. The scrum was its usual strength and the lineout did well, again under Harinordoquy. This French team will be capable of big performances come the six nations.

    I must agree however, the off-the-cuff plays that saw france beat Wales? 51 - something small has seemed to disappear. I don't know what it will take for them to find it again, but they will surely be a contender for 2011 if they find it before the World Cup.

  • Comment number 55.

    This has been a great conversation. Also for the first time I have read a write-up on the French in which the explanation matches the facts as I know them. Not much to add, bar two (and a half) views.

    Diffidently, I suggest that Mears hasn't the presence in the scrummage offered by the other two to be a likely selection for England just now. It's tough on him, because he is quite obviously a remarkable trier and contributes vastly in every other department, but the main contenders for the World Cup just now have all put scrummaging at the head of their selectional criteria for hookers, and I think Johnson & co. will be selecting with that in mind. Australia is picking Moore ahead of a number of more showy hookers, South Africa seem to prefer du Plessis to the already quite meaty Smit, and - hard to believe, but there it is - Mealamu is only in the New Zealand run-on team owing to injury of a hooker whose only point of advantage over him seems to be scrummaging. I don't think the English selectors are lightly going to forget what happened to Sheridan against Australia when he had Mears beside him, and how much better he looked the second time round against the same side this Autumn with a scrummager there.

    As to Croft, he is indeed a special footballer, always gets among the tries, and helps in the line-out, but I suspect (always subject to correction) that he may get a test or two to "harden-up" his rucking and mauling game and then he's for the bench. Seagulls tend to need to be carried, and I don't think that Johnson & co. will conclude that they saw enough against South Africa and New Zealand to justify a belief that Easter and Moody can carry a seagull in the basck row. For New Zealand, McCaw and Soi'alo, and now McCaw and Read, have been just about enough to carry a loose forward who occasionally seagulls, and for South Africa, Smith and Burger can just about carry Spies most times, but Moody isn't quite at the level of McCaw or Burger (or Pocock), Easter isn't quite at the level of Read, Elsom or Smith, and, eye-catching as he may be, Croft isn't quite as worth occasional carrying as Spies, Collins or Kaino. Johnson may remember that the effectiveness of the Hill-Dallaglio-Back back-row (or the Skinner/Teague-Richards/Teague-Winterbottom back row before it) wasn't so much due to the world-beating brilliance of individual members as to the uncompromising nature of the units collectively and the fact that no member was being carried.

    Well, they're just views ... I certainly also hope that Johnson gets the right locking and centre pairings in place and run in in good time. I'm not sure that the players we saw in the Autumn internationals in these positions will cut the mustard in a World Cup final - 'though I'd like to be proven wrong.

  • Comment number 56.


    That is a very valid point. It seems the big teams are really prioritising scrum time as a way of asserting dominance over the opposition. England used it back in June as a means to tire out the Aussies making them less speedy and open in the loose, having a knock on effect to the way Australia play. Because of this your point about the hookers needing to be scrummagers is a valid one. I agree, Mears isn't the whole article, but maybe he has enough to offer elsewhere to make the squad and offer something different?

    A fair point about Croft I think, although i've never heard the term seagull before? The Richards,Teague Winterbottom trio was slightly before my time although as a Leicester fan, Dean Richards' ability in the tight is somewhat renowned. However, I totally agree with your comment about Hill, Dallaglio and Back. There was a unit greater than the sum of its parts. the number of turnovers Neil Back and Richard Hill could win was astonishing. The number of tackles from all 3 and the power of Dallaglios carries...the one against NZ with 4 players on his back!!

    Personally, to fit that type of partnership together with the current England set-up I think would require two things. Firstly Steffon Armitage not to be overlooked as I see a lot of similarities between him and Back. I also don't think Steffon is the finished number 7 yet either. If he could learn all the arts and skills of Neil Back in the tight, he would be nailed on in my opinion. His carrying skills at international level don't seem to have quite the success he achieves at London Irish, however, I also don't think all 8 forwards need to be ball carriers. If the goal for the England back row is to emulate the unit of the 03 team then I think Haskell/Worsley-Easter-Armitage could be the way forward, what is your opinion?

    Personally I feel the game is more open now than in 03 and the back row requires a bit more athleticism - lineouts, support running and Croft does that. Ashtons surge against NZ when England hacked the ball out of the 22, Croft was the only man up in support to begin with. Although he was pretty ineffective at the ruck against the NZ defence, he still bought enough time for the England support to arrive there which culminated in Hartleys try. Thing is i'm not sure of a 7 to complement Easter and Croft once Moody retires. Any thoughts?


  • Comment number 57.

    Segnes and Ginger

    Many points--

    (a) Magnus Lund Thankyou.

    I saw him play very well for Biarritz and wonder why, when we are short of decent Sevens with international experience he has dropped out of contention.. Perhaps he has made himself unavailable. Now he plays club rugby with his brother perhaps he intends to play for Norway?.. But one of my letters many years ago to Geoffe Cooke said that- specifically in the case of Mike Teague, who had retired in a huff at 29- that it was his job to make people he wanted want to play for England. Surely the chance of playing in a RWC should be enticement enough?

    (B) More mobile back three than in 2003.. When CW brought together Dallaglio, Hill and Back as his back row, they were the England Sevens of the previous three seasons.. But not only did they learn to play as a unit, they also moulded themselves into their roles.

    (c) I agree with all the comments about Croft, and he may well in the end turn out to be another Andy Ripley, who we sadly lost this year. Ripley did so much to breath new confidence and credibility back into English rugby- and so has Croft. I know the French still look back with great affection Ripley, as ex-student at the Sorbonne. What a player he would have made for France! But I am afraid though tremendously exciting, and key to rare English victories in the SH, he was prone to losing the ball in contact and the logic of playing Uttley in his place at 8 was undeniable.. And even on the Lions in SA Uttley was prefered to him at Six.

    In these days of the bench I think that he is an ideal"impact player".

    (d) The Way Forward for France- And in fact for rugby as a whole..NZ are once again the team that appears to be leading the way.. But- and I know that this may annoy New Zealanders- though we can admire the awesome capabilities and performance of the All Black machine, in a European context it inevitably (to this historian at least) has resonances with the great "master race machine" with its own elite dressed all in black.

    I believe that the game of Rugby was invented at Rugby School as a game that could be played by boarders drawn from the varied populations and cultures of the British Isles- with their different traditions and qualities, physical and otherwise all finding a place in the varied fabric of the team- a scrum-half, prop, and second row walking down the street together would be a comedy act in itself.

    I remember some England coach 25 years ago saying "Give me 15 men all about 6'4" and 14-15 stone and I will produce a rugby team". Things have moved on from that, but it seems to be true that standard component parts can be moulded into an effective team, as long as they are caught early enough- as the Nazis did with the German youth, carefully identifying early on the potential elite.

    It would appear that recent French success in many sports has been associated with the adoption of this kind of approach, which is more restictive of personal development than the old British sports in schools programme.. "Give us the child and we will give you the man".

    It is perhaps no accident that some selected French schools are piloting a new school day at this moment in which all academic subjects are limited to the mornings only, while the afternoons are to be dedicated to the pursuit of varied physically activities- for the French too are facing a crisis of obesity and the health issues that go along with this.

    Of course we all need to learn the lessons from the best, and MJ was part of the AB system at an important part of his life: but I think that the crisis of confidence and self-belief within Europe has been crucial and detrimental to rugby- along with everything else. An old English adage urged the English "to thyself be true", and I think that this is important for the French, Welsh, Scots, and Irish too.

    We will not beat the All Blacks at their own game. Not even by importing those who were not confident that they could force their way into the AB side, but might do better elsewhere. That looks like a recipe for coming off second best.


  • Comment number 58.


    Yes I agree with your point about Lund, and that the prospect of a World cup place is surely too good to pass up! Maybe as he went to Biarritz a few seasons ago now, Before the mass wasps exodus of Haskell Palmer and Flutey and others from other clubs, he did not get the required release clause in his contract for England EPS leave?

    I also agree with your comment about Back Hill and Dallaglio being a tremendously mobile back three. I am not trying to argue Croft Moody and Easter are more mobile than their 03 counterparts, I concede that point. The point I was trying to make was, in my opinion back rows as a whole have become more mobile over the past few years. Brossouw for SA is arguably Marty Williams/Neil Back esque in his play in a traditionally huge Springbok pack.

    If we are to contrast mobility now though, Croft, Haskell, Lund, Armitage and Moody all get around the park fairly well. It comes down to what combinations to pick. Does Worsley or Dan Ward Smith have a place in the back row too? In a way we are blessed with options and Fourie is consistently good, although not consistently brilliant. I'm not sure how to get the best out of this back row. Based on our musings, maybe Haskell at 6, Lund at 7, Ward-Smith at 8 and Croft on the bench could be an option? Although I have no idea whether it would work or not, it could be a disaster!

    The point about Croft as an impact player, England v Samoa, twickenham 2010...

    Your final point, the 25 year old example has much less relevance to the 15 a side game where their is something much more unique about the different positions. I think you are right that we wont beat the all blacks at their own game, but I fear we would beat ourselves if we went too far the other way and tried to slow the game down too much and just over power the NZ forwards and play a purely tight game from 1 - 10.

    Ben foden, Chris Ashton, Delon Armitage, perhaps even Strettle and Tait, are real players in the backs and I think some New Zealand-esque counter-attacking flair and precision could really work when you look at the talent in our backline. An over-reliance on Flutey, and Hape doesn't seem the way forward I agree, I think Flutey and Hape are good players, Fluteys handling in particular is brilliant. But Hape and Tindall, 2 battering rams...

    Going back to CW when he was at England, Greenwood and Tindall then Catt and Tindall... that worked. Just as with the back row, the centre partnership needs to be about getting the best out of each other.


  • Comment number 59.

    flying ginger

    We seem to agree on most things, and to return to the original title of this blog, and the implication, I think that we can both see real positives- and the English game moving in the right direction-- which I did not feel was the case before the "MJ Revolution".

    As Sir Clive has come up, I think that it is sometimes forgotten that he was given the job because no-one with any reasonable experience was prepared to take it on, and had (to my mind)no meaningful experience himself. As a player he had occasionally been played at FH, but really was a "loose-cannon" outside centre for Leicester, England and the Lions- usually depended upon Paul Dodge's general reading of the game. He was never even an established captain, and had worked -as I recall- as a backs coach at Bath.

    What he did have was a willingness to take risks, and I believe, a good background in business and commerce, at the time when the whole question of establishing Professional Rugby on a commercial basis was crucial. His selection of Dallaglio, who gave English Rugby a really good "front man". One can not be surprised that he had a sister who was one of the models tragically lost in the Marchionness disaster.

    And the result was that the selection and the game plan for his first game in charge, I seem to remember at France in Bordeaux because Parc de France was being built, was ludicrous and played right into the hands of France. So he had the luxury of evolving a team by trial and error, and good luck- perhaps especially (I have often argued) because the Thatcher Revolution in schools had pumped money and gifted children into schools with strong rugby and cricket traditions- and coaches and gymns.

    What followed was a collapse of that sporting thrust, and the need for a new system to be set up. There are now signs that one is in place,and we can be encouraged by the talent that is coming through into the GP..Perhaps Andy Farrell's son may manage to pull off what Ian Botham's son could not.


  • Comment number 60.

    Hi again Cass,

    Yes, I agree again. I think Clive Woodward was very astute with his selection policy at times though. From reading Dallaglios autobiography bits come across that way.

    I put a lot of faith into the current system, It seems to allow young players to come through. I'm from Norfolk and there are several players who have gone through the Tigers set up and it works.

    With regard to the future though, i'm not sure how it will go. To me there are two (from many) possible options and the latter, unlikely. I think if England continue as they are, they will be very competitive come the 2011 world cup. For me, the squad would be something like: sheridan, hartley, cole, lawes, shaw, croft, moody, easter, youngs, flood, cueto, hape/ someone not in the loop now...geraghty or barkley, tindall, ashton and foden with the subs again, very similar to the autumn internationals. Perhaps the inclusion of flutey again in the backs and possibly strettle.

    However, I also see the opportunity for this six nations to be a trial (if only there was another year before the next world cup) and then try and bring on a squad that could go on untill 2015.. I would put kennedy alongside Lawes, and do something to tweak the back row similar to our previous discussion. I'd try younger guys out in the centres. The wingers and full back could be similar to now, cueto maybe not, he shall be mid thirties I think?

    All I can say is, this England team is going in the right direction pre six nations and world cup!!!


  • Comment number 61.

    Lots of food for thought, flying_ginger et al. I don't feel qualified to make a definitive response to some specific invitations, but thanks for inviting it.

    Since I'm not finding anything to fuel debate in any part of the discussion - all good sense, most of it not from me - but the conversation goes to what England might do with the World Cup in view, I'll take the opportunity to air a long-held pet view about selection. Perhaps it goes to a number of the selectional matters which have come up.

    Rugby is all about limiting strengths which the opposition might enjoy. Players are past-masters at this, otherwise they're not in the first-string squad. Often the players who look good in matches are the ones who aren't singled out for systematic inhibition. This is why selectors get it wrong, and always will. Amazing in fact that they seldom get it ALL wrong, I'd say. Please - I'm not saying that the selectors are idiots: I'm not. It's tough job. I just have a possibly daft notion which might help.

    You want the best defensive open-sider in a club, county or nation? The one who terrifies fly-halves? Don't ask the selectors. Ask the fly-halves. They'll know. The selectors won't, because they won't be seeing those damaging tackles. Fly-halves aren't (all) blind stupid: they do what it takes to avoid being tackled by the scariest open-siders, often (if not generally) things the selectors watching loose forwards don't spot, ranging from lying a touch deeper to covertly arranging for the necessary obstruction. Want the wing everybody fears? You won't much see him in matches whipping by the defence or counter-attacking: the opposing fly-half would have his nostril wrapped several times around his face by his own three-quarters if he dropped a kick in-field anywhere near such a wing, and the defence will slide to close off any overlaps coming his way no matter what the coach may have directed before the game. The three-quarters who have played AGAINST the best know much better than the coaches who the best are. You want the tight-head prop whom nobody wants to scrummage against and against whom everybody goes beyond the last resort? Ask the loose-heads, because again they'll know. They'll all be doing things for dear life to make the best tight-heads look like nobody much all game long. All the selectors will see is - well, nothing, as usual.

    I speak from experience. I've been congratulated by selectors (all very long ago)after games in which some appalling swine was making my eyes pop out in every scrummage, every ounce of energy I possesed was being exhausted in trying to deal with him or at least hurt him when the front row went down, and I couldn't move all Sunday because my back had been shot to ribbons. In my unremarkable career, I've watched the best scrum-halves not being selected because not only their opposite numbers but all eight opposing forwards pour like the plague of boils (but much faster) all over them at every opportunity, the best locks being passed over because it's tough to get up in line-outs with a prop standing on one foot, another barging you aside, and the opposite lock varying obstructive tactics to include anything but a competion for the ball, and so on. I've cut it short because you surely know of which I prate.

    Worse still, somehow the loose forwards who don't get tied up in rucking and similar sordid grappling (I've avoided reference to marine poultry!) catch the selectors' collective eye, hookers who shift and swing and drop their heads, generally doing more to disrupt their own scrummage than the opposition could hope to, turn up to take an unload and score, amazing selectors with their "all-round game", locks who don't shove or ruck for toffee but who look as if they've brought the ball out of mauls because they continually intercept (and delay) the delivery to the scrum-half who are heralded by selectors as "consummate grafters", scrum-halves and fly-halves who scamper about like, well, sorry, but decapitated domestic poultry comes to mind, while their three-quarters drop their hands in despair who are heralded as the future hope of "running rugby", and three-quarters whose defence consists exclusively of narrowly-missing but spectacular Milo-dives, after which they seem never to get back on their feet quickly enough to help correct the miss, and whose speciality is the delivery of thirty-yard change-of-direction hospital passes, who appeal to the selectors as "tactical playmakers".

    As for the selectors'notions about "inspirational captaincy" ... well, suffice it to say that, in my humble experience, marine poultry is notoriously noisy, and seems always to have breath to spare ...!

    Mind you, I'm happy to admit that Johnson & co. have been largely (if not entirely) proof to seduction by the crowd-pleasers - in spite of the crowd-pleasers' popularity.

    But there is something Johnson & co. might like to do before they sit down in committee to select the side for the first Six Nations game. I suggest that they should get a management consultant to help prepare something in the nature of a set of performance rating scales for every position, and have every player in the top level ranked in relation to the scales for his particular position by the all the players who have to face him, after all the preliminary stuff needed for this kind of intevention to persuade participants of the importance of their best input.

    I'll bet that the insights which would emerge would in some instances be quite illuminating, and a number of forgotten faces will as a result re-emerge ... and a number of celebrated contenders will be relegated to effective obscurity.

    Well, what do I understand about selection, anyway?

  • Comment number 62.


    I think that you touch upon a longstanding gripe of mine.. the emergence of the coach selector..

    I go back to the time when obviously the game was amateur and selection was by a committee of ex-players who watched lots of matches- usually within the regional basis. They then tried to bring forward the best possible team on real current performance..

    As has come up many times- and is implied in your comments- players need to work as units not as individuals: and the selectors did not always get it right. I think that my proudest moment involved gate-crashing the team bar at Twickenham and just going to introduce myself to the chair of selectors with whom I had been in regular correspondence. He turned to the England coach and introduced me as the person who wrote to him after the team had been selected but before the match, predicting how each unit in that team would function: and he added that after the matches I had been proved right in my detailed analysis of how players who had never played together before would gell.

    The game moved on from there, and all team games became more and more dependent upon training ground moves and coaching.. And the coaches became the selectors..

    But I had seen this kind of thing in action within school sport. Teachers and coaches like people who will do what they are told, follow instructions, and really give 120% on the training pitch..Greatness is not necessarily like that. In another domain the great actor Orson Wells apparently never bothered to really act in rehearsals, and even in film shoots not while he was not "on camera".

    But in addition to favouring "star pupils" like Mat Dawson ( who showed this on Strictly Come Dancing), the coach who has spent hours investing on someone on the training ground, is almost certain to choose his protege before a better player who has just totally outplayed him-- obviously "the chosen one" "has potential".

    I made my case to Rob Andrew in urging the RFU not to go the same elite root that had robbed English Cricket of players who were still playing regularly at various levels.. As apparently a front row, you may appreciate the comment I got from the partner of a Scottish Captain and prop who played for London Scottish against Gloucester the week before he faced the same prop for England. After the club match, no worries. After the England game, it was a totally different story.

    I believe in "amateurism"- that is loving the game.. And people who love their game, like Geoffrey Boycott, are always happiest having a game at whatever level. Part of being a gifted performer in anything is having the ability to adjust your level of play to the circumstance.

    As I have said about France, though they have adopted much of that coaching- and straightjacket ethos- I think that the French revolutionary tradition means that there is a much greater capacity for having a major change of direction and bringing in the key players who are performing well at club level.


  • Comment number 63.

    Perhaps as a follow up about the advantages of playing at a lower level, I seem to recall Peter Winterbottom -possibly on the come back from surgery- turning out for his club second team as a Full Back, where he could put in some much needed work on his handling skills.

    [I still maintain that one fumble in the Australian 22 in the Home World Cup Final led to Australia's one chance to get field position and win the game- and the Cup]


  • Comment number 64.

    Segnes & Cass

    Some great points. A particularly interesting point about the coaches becoming the selectors. Could it then be appropriate for there to be an England selectors panel completely separate from the coaching staff. Their job not being to go around and measure heart rate and clock up yards on a gps, but watch games and see who can outplay who at club level? Perhaps even, and I like this idea, ask players about opponents. I think this can again go back to the 03 team. Who would excel at playing against Neil Back?

    There is a quote by Jean Giradeaux (ironically a frenchman) "only the mediocre are at their best every day". I think this ties in with the comment about players who love the game can adjust. There is a difference between training and a test match.

    There is one thing i'm not sure over-coaching helps. The taking of a naturally talented sportsman who can "turn it on" for the derby or for the big final. Over-coaching seems to erode a part of this skill from the young players and lead to comments about playing like robots!Maybe we should take a leaf out of France's book?


  • Comment number 65.


    A personal gripe from the coaching side--

    I may be wrong but it seemed to be round the time that the English amateur's were given a new strict training regime that John Hall- one of my favourite players- was lost to the national side..

    The impression that I got was that everyone was required to do the same exercises, including that favourite of that period of short sprints and 180 degree turns, endlessly repeated. Hall had had double-knee reconstructions, and to my mind was a world class player who could play high level match-rugby..and he continued to do so for Bath..

    The compulsory training regime would have curtailed his career.. Faced with a inflexible "no exceptions" attitude, he chose the sensible option.

    And regarding creative players- I believe that Austen-Healy was crucially important in bringing credibility to Clive Woodwards "running rugby" concept that brought England up to its status as a "team to beat". Staying up there for long enough to win the RWC was then the challenge.


  • Comment number 66.

    Hearty cheers on the subject of amateurism: I too grieve its passing. Rugby did really belong to everyone in those days, and frankly nobody much cared that the tight forwards took a little longer to cover the pitch in the last twenty minutes: it was a tactical consideration to be strategised for, and kept many a student team in league contention. Of course, it works only if there aren't professionals.

    Actually, hearty cheering on everything, despite the fact that I became one of those selector-coaches after I could no longer drag by addled carcass about the pitch and still ponder errors of precisely the type you describe - when I'm not being haunted by refereeing mistakes or earlier errors in matches, especially those that denied me tries.

    Of course, none of that goes much to the learning curve upon which the England team currently resides, but it does somehow arise from the discussion. Perverse.

    But just an observation on learning curves, if I may: no doubt everyone still chatting on this thread (The original author must be watching with some bemusement!) recalls the enthusiasm with which a relatively recent South African coach, Ian MacIntosh, ascribed every defeat to the players allegedly being "on a learning curve". From where I stood, the person on the learning curve was him. He and his protege and successor, Nick Mallett, helped the South African rugby public to appreciate the futility of playing to predictable formulae, no matter how romantically inspired, and as a result the coaching philosophy in South Africa has, as far as I can tell, returned to building strategy around the game-breaking players in their own team and the likely strategic focus of each opponent. Australia nearly always does this, from my perspective, and while they do not win every game they do reasonably well. (The only formula which Australia unerringly applies is talking opponents out of playing to their own strengths and into playing to Austalia's, and even in that they constantly vary lines and agents of attack.) New Zealand on the other hand do get stuck on formulae, especially when they're doing well, and in my view this is largely why they get beaten in World Cup contests despite their initial favourite status. I could expand, but I'm sure there's no need.

    England seems also to have a macabre prediction for playing to formula rather than strength, so you can see why I flinch a little when talk turns to "learning curves" - without denying that there is room for improvement.

  • Comment number 67.


    Like minds it seems..

    I was only just reflecting today on this thought of the AB's machine failing in the RWC..

    And there is a bit or personal history about the tendency of both England and the AB's to get stuck on a game plan.

    During my regular summer holiday luxury (schoolteacher's holiday)of reviewing the old season in the light of the new before the RWC in England, I pondered on the fact that England looked like they had to play NZ- I forget the details.. Were we in the same group?.. Anyway even if we lost we could go through. So I suggested to the selectors that we might change from what was becoming the English formula of Richards, Dooley and Ackford and play the pack that was necessary to have a chance of beating NZ..

    The current Thorn is I believe the residue of the classic NZ format of playing brothers (even famously twins.. Was it not Reuben Thorn in this case?) in the SR and BS Wing Forward, so that the mobility of the SR would compensate for the size of a big 8. Line-outs would go to the eight, and then the mobile and powerful back-row and lock could create havoc. The answer I suggested was to play Redman in the SR and a line-out Six (Rodber or Ryan) in the back row.. In fact it was some time later, after an unsuccessful tour to NZ that this combination was used and achieved an historic victory at Twickenham..

    And I felt that we had nothing to lose by changing from our set ways, and everything to gain.. As it was we got to the final. Winterbottom fumbled a ball. The Aussies got field position near our line, and had countered Ackford and Dooley by playing Croker and Ofanghengawe in the back row. Candy and babies comes to mind.

    By the time of the RWC in South Africa the AB's were still pretty much doing the same thing with their great weapon Jonah Lomu. But NZ look so tremendous in between RWC when the selectors keep shuffling to find their winning side. "Never change a winning team".

    In South Africa the most simple video analysis showed that Lomu was never given first phase possession. Almost all first-phase possession was run back to the back-row by the outside centre, where the rampant AB back-row and mobile SR won good second phase possession, and against a hastily reorganised defence Lomu was lethal.

    South Africa moved Andrew to number eight to contest the back of the line out, and Pienaar spearheaded a terrific SA contest for second phase ball. NZ found themselves shipping out first phase ball to Lomu, and, as in that England game at Twickenham featuring the previous "monster" (who eventually became quite Geordie), the predictable pattern allowed the shuffle defence to force Lomu into touch. And NZ could not find an answer.


  • Comment number 68.

    Indeed, Cass. And to add to your thesis regarding the 1995 World Cup final, wasn't it sad to see Frank Bunce and Andrew Mehrtens tactically exposed? I'll return to Mehrtens, but on how many occasions must Bunce have watched that chunky fellow marking him - Mulder or Muller, as I don't quite recall - holding off to keep Lomu covered, and Andre Joubert coming up early from the back to get onto Lomu, and still he passed to Lomu without drawing the defence instead of going for the gap or chipping the ball into the space Joubert had vacated? As a vocal admirer of Bunce, I squirmed on that day.

    I didn't squirm so much when Catt failed completely to check Lomu (or even fractionally alter his course) during the earlier encounter with England. That I'd predicted. (In fact my heart sank when I saw the England team selection for that test: once more sentimental selection had prevailed, and in this case in relation to the two positions which any clown who'd been watching the pool games knew for sure would be attacked by New Zealand if they remained true to formula - which they did.) I'd also predicted that South Africa wouldn't be putting poets and mathematicians in against Lomu, but then I blew it by saying that Bunce wouldn't be wasting the resultant opportunities coming his way. I never learn, do I?

    Incidentally, Pienaar did do a great job against the New Zealand back-row on that day, but I rather thought that Kruger was the best member of the partnership, and there was a third loose forward, the Western Province captain, Strauss, who I believe would have made an even better partner for Kruger than Pienaar. Didn't matter, in the event: they were good enough not only to neutralise Kronfeld and Brewer (I think it was), but indeed to dominate them. That injury was more damaging to New Zealand that the runny tummies to which they later ascribed their defeat.

    Truth be told, I think the South African brains trust completely out-guessed its New Zealand counterparts on the day. Normally the South Africans pick an eighth man who can cover their full-back but somehow they foresaw that Mehrtens wasn't going to be using that raking tactical boot much. I think that they'd "got into" the New Zealanders' collective head and realised that the Lomu phenomenon had hypnotised them as much as it had hypnotised their opponents.

    Stransky, a capable fly-half and very likeable fellow, but not a world-beating fly-half in Mehrtens's mould, finally won the cup with a drop-kick that must cause Mehrtens to lie staring at the ceiling on many nights: he could have done it himself, with a cleaner strike, better flight, no problem, if only he had played his own game, instead of playing his part in the machinery for getting Lomu away. I know you'll have appreciated the irony, too.

  • Comment number 69.


    But I think Pienaar was one of those people whose captaincy was a real asset - unlike Moody. I think it needed someone special to be able to embrace the Rainbow Nation moment, and lead the whole squad into an hour of destiny.

    Actually getting back to Twickenham last Saturday, I wonder whether there was not some history in a SA team that had lost to Scotland coming to Twickenham..History was not to repeat itself.

    I may have got this all wrong. But back in the Nineties when Mallett was bringing his SA team to Twickers, our daughter, who was then at Oxford, told me that she saw a squad of massive young men in green jackets visiting the colleges.. I had/have always suspected that this Mallett was the brilliant 8 Dark Blue, who then went on to play for Bath..One of the best 8's I ever saw for emerging from a maul with the ball. So this would have been an "old stomping ground" trip for the coach and a revelation to these young men from the Veldt etc.. Oxford was my home town and I always knew it was/is a bit special. So much history. And then the team went to Twickenham, scene of Mallett's Varsity Matches and so much else. So much history: and the result was another famous England victory.

    Something similar happened I believe when Brian Ashton, fellow ex-history teacher, took Phil Vickery and the team around the disaster sights of Ireland just to educate them fully in the significance of the Irish Rugby Union being allowed to play the English Rugby Union in Croke Park.

    Linking this back to captaincy and coaches, and in fact to the point that you make about feed-back from players, I think that a good captain (in rugby as elsewhere) represents his "men" to the boss, and not the boss to the men. Carling was military and knew about "old farts" etc, and was able to take personal responsibility on the field. I am not sure that MJ has managed to distance himself yet from the playing field not to still have the passions that were so important in a captain who led from the front.

    He very obviously lives almost every moment of the game, with the frustration of not being able to do anything about it- and not having a captain who feels capable of putting him in his place.. After all he is a legend in his lifetime. Borthwick I tend to see as more of a deputy than a Captain; and Moody is captain as much as anything else because he has endured longest.. Carling, on the other hand, was very obviously Captain material from the first season.. In fact from the moment against France when he claimed a bouncing ball a couple of metres from the English line, with French players all honing in, and did a Dean Richards- just holding his ground and holding on to the ball, until the English support arrived.

    I think that the SA match should be carefully examined with a view to identifying whether England as yet does have a credible captain. It is in such games that captaincy really counts.


  • Comment number 70.

    One and the same Mallett, Cass: he was a fine loose forward possessed of a very powerful personality even as an under-twenty captain at the University of Cape Town. Agree with all your other points, too. Pienaar of course wasn't the only outstanding provincial captain available to lead South Africa in 1995 but as he got the result I doubt that he'll ever be publicly doubted as the best.

    Interestingly, his most remarkable features included a measure of political acumen and quite assertive player activism, which seem to have earned him the suspicion of a subsequent coach and consequent dismissal. In some cultural circles in South Africa, which remain influential in rugby there, the mark of a real man is his ability to dismiss international sentiment with naked contempt, and the coach in question was evidently a man of substance in those circles.

    You can see, by the way, why I have some sympathy with de Villiers: he emulates the social style and mouths the social sentiments, attracting all sorts of criticism without evidently winning over the pertinent members of his team - and he is a member of one of the communities which were victims of those attitudes! All rather sad.

    Well, England may not have a Carling to hand just now, and it might be best to accept that Moody will be leading the team next year. I wonder what Bryn Palmer would have to say to all this? He seems to have resigned himself to what has happened to the tail-end of his blog.

  • Comment number 71.


    Just a quickie..

    I wonder whether Rees might be the answer to both the Seven and the Captaincy- if he manages to stay injury free and on top form.. I just feel that he might be the kind of player with just that edge of self-belief and personal judgement that the position requires- especially in the presence of MJ.. Is he the son of the Rees who lost out more often than not to Winterbottom, and who inspired Back? As with Youngs and Easter, it seems that having a successful sporting father is an asset.


  • Comment number 72.

    Agree, though at this stage I suspect that only injury or suspension will cause that outcome even to be contemplated. Agree also that some kind of gene/meme combination does seem to result in a high proportion of sportsmen being the offspring of successful sportsmen. Keep well.

  • Comment number 73.


    Thanks for enjoyable exchanges.. Till next time..


  • Comment number 74.

    Many thanks to you too Cass, and to you Segnes!


  • Comment number 75.

    Is this the only site accessible at the moment?


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