Bryn Palmer

England search for right notes (31)

Versailles - For a while on Monday afternoon, it was possible to believe England were still world champions in more than just name.

Anyone passing the Stade Montbauron, the team’s training base in a quiet corner of Versailles, might have thought an international boy band was in town, such was the high-pitched squealing frenzy awaiting the squad from 2,000 local schoolchildren.

Several hundred curious adults also looked on from the ground’s only stand as the England boys strutted their stuff in a public training session.

Some of the chidren were even draped in England flags, although when I asked some of them which players they were looking forward to seeing, “Wilk-een-son” and “Rob-een-son” were the only names proferred.

For half an hour it appeared they might be disappointed, for there was no sign of Jonny, or Olly Barkley, while Robinson, hamstring still intact, was only able to walk up and down with physio Phil Pask, before later breaking into a gentle jog.

Jason Robinson

No-one seemed to quite know what was going on, players and coaches alike, as they stood around, threw a few balls around, and did a bit of stretching.

But eventually Wilkinson and Barkley, accompanied by Nick Easter – had he decided to get some kicking practice in too? or had they all missed the bus? – joined the happy throng, and the squad ran through a few basic moves.

When they first emerged from the changing rooms, the local co-ordinator had invited the crowd, via his microphone, to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mike Catt, who turned 36 on Monday.

Catt looked a little bemused at the ensuing rendition, which seemed to include a fair few whistles and jeers as well as singing, unless my ears were deceiving me.

But then in the space of 24 hours anyone could be forgiven for wondering whether those inside the camp are, as assistant coach Mike Ford said on Sunday, “on the same hymn sheet” anyway in terms of how they recover from Friday’s debacle against South Africa and beat Samoa on Saturday.

Ford, for those who missed developments, proceeded to say he didn’t think England possessed the sort of world-class players the Springboks had, and that Andy Farrell is probably a bit long in the tooth to make a successful transition to rugby union now.

Neither observation would be hotly disputed by anyone who has witness England’s performances of late, but it was a surprise nevertheless to hear a coach being so candid about the raw materials he had to work with.

Equally unsurprising was that head coach Brian Ashton and specialist coach Graham Rowntree were not minded to share Ford’s view in public on Monday when asked their own thoughts on whether the current side is up to the task in front of them.

“I don’t accept we haven’t got the players,” Ashton said. “I think we have. In our last three matches we have performed nowhere near the level, or potential level, of the ability of the players we have got. We have to make sure we get the right performance on Saturday [against Samoa] and get all the players playing to their full potential.”

One player Ashton has got is Farrell, who he defended against the latest bout of headlines to come the rugby league convert’s way on the back of Ford's comments.

Had the gamble of bringing Farrell to union backfired? Ashton was asked. “I don’t think it has all,” he replied, before going on to say he thought it “grossly unfair” to single out one player after the collective failings against South Africa.

“If the 14 others around him were playing absolutely phenomenal rugby and he wasn’t, then we might have a case for talking about it,” Ashton said. “But the guys around him are not playing any better or worse than he is.”

A fair point. I gave Farrell five out of 10 in my player ratings on Friday, but only four players got anything more, and plenty of you accused me of being generous.

Rowntree, too, buoyed by England’s “better than average” set-piece showing against the Boks, was insistent in his belief that “we have got the players and I don’t think we are too far off the pace, in terms of the forward battle”.

“Collectively,” he added, “we all need to know what we are doing a bit more, but that comes from confidence. I don’t think this side is far away from breaking their duck and getting that confidence, believe me.”

So be reassured, England fans, all is not lost. The squad are “in a bad place at the moment” Rowntree acknowledged, but “we will fight our way out of it”.

Excellent. Saturday night’s alright for fighting, after all.

Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 08:31 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • David wrote:

I think many of us are baffled by the poor performances. We have some very good players who play much more convincingly than this in club rugby.

Can it be the pressure of the occasion or the fear of failure?

We can only hope that the fact that England have all but been written off will liberate the team to throw caution to the wind and unleash some inventive and free running Rugby.

  • 2.
  • At 08:35 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • Patrick Moylan wrote:

Sydney 2003 was a milestone when two different forms of union rugby passed each other in the night. The rugby that England played,and had played for years, had forwards ambling to the contact area and leaning ( a la Richards and Ben Clarke - even Jonno ).That form won in the last chance saloon.
In the meantime NZ and the other southerners were putting the finishing touches to the new form of rugby of power,control, and bravery at the breakdown and pace everywhere.
Two of the major participants in Englands out of date style are still prominent ; one Andrew ,is in charge,the other Wilkinson, is still dragged out by the newspapers as the missing Messiah. His style is as outmoded as Moses and his play making contribution was average compensated by his accurate kicking. One night of successful kicking in Sydney kidded us that the king had clothes on

We have had decades of this misery and four years of complete delusion. We can't even start to coach our next generation until the whole edifice that is England rugby is torn down. Greedy.blind and stupid. The journos snipe at fish in a barrel- most of them are as guilty as the suits. Where is the Kerry Packer to pack them all away ? Perhaps there should be three forms of rugby ; League, rugby that England play and rugby that the southern hemisphere play. Not sure that England would be any good at their version anyway.

Against Samoa,look away if you don't want to know the score !

  • 3.
  • At 08:44 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • Patrick Moylan wrote:


When two forms of rugby passed each other in the night - England's into the dark. Anzac into a bright new morn.
But Andrew and Wilkinson still lead us to the light at the end of the tunnel which is their forwards,fast and deadly

  • 4.
  • At 08:58 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • Royston Jones wrote:

Rowntree thinks England's set-piece is OK. True, but the game today involves rather more than the set-piece and the turgid, stultifying rugby that England serve up, and of which Rowntree was such an adept. And even when it was successful you made no friends because it turned people off the game. What is the problem here? Are you English a nation in denial? Are you suffering from collective blindness?

  • 5.
  • At 09:28 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • smellywag wrote:

England do have the players (some are not in the world cup squad coz they are too young, inexperienced, whatever..) I think it was wrong of Ford to say we dont have the players during a world cup camppaign. Is he passing the blame ....??? what England are suffering from is a total lack of confidence. They need to go back to basics and now. Dont worry how we win, just get a win, the confidence will follow....

  • 6.
  • At 10:12 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • ian wrote:

I thought the coaching dream team might be Rob Andrew and Dean Richards. RA presumably has some power now but what has he done with it? He stated about a year ago that England age group rugby should be abandoned for all the good it was doing, well whats changed? The promising young backs we have seen in recent years all have a few things in common.....Public school,very little competitive experience(especially against men),premiership academies,a handful of premiership games.....and a big shock when they play SH opposition. Remember Matthew Tait? In the centre against Wales and made to look a bit silly then on the wing then not in the squad. How are we to prepare for the future? Tom Varndell, in the England team after a handful of games for the tigers but he couldnt tackle. So then hes off to Bedford and completely out of recognition and now back at the tigers. How can this work? Gerraghty etc very little experience not ready for SH matches. Do you realise the fool Ashton almost took Cipriani? How long would he last against the Bokkers? What is the answer HELP !!!!!!!!!!!

  • 7.
  • At 11:02 PM on 17 Sep 2007,
  • Simon wrote:

English rugby has always been solid forwards, a back who could kick and occasionally a decent winger- but never really anyone to get the ball to them, with Guscott the only centre in living memory to approach world class.
All black and other southern hemisphere rugby has always been more dynamic- more athletic forwards, bigger backs who are trusted with the ball! I'd rather see a line of Andy Farrells than a line of Catts, Noons and Floods.
That said, super14 is BORING BORING rugby-criticised for not having enough forward grunt-play- and with all the Southern hemisphere players in Northern hemisphere club teams you'd think something would rub off?
England experimented with a more expansive game- didnt work, it just isnt in their nature- we should paly to our strengths. The 2003 winners were 1. good; 2. well drilled- many years in the making; 3. confident of winning- so they did.

So, all England need is a competitive forward pack (need athletes who can run around the park in the heat like the SA did last week), a decent kicker and backs who 1. can tackle every time- no more nancy public school boys more concerned with their hair (more Farrells and Robinsons) and 2. can take the ball on the run and maybe a few chances?

  • 8.
  • At 02:48 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Graham wrote:

Just shows you, it took a 7 year campaign to win the last RWC inspite of the structure of English rugby.
Are we not getting what we should have expected given our play over the last 3 or 4 years?
How can rugby have changed without the Northern Hemisphere noticing?
Does it have anything to do with sending weak teams down under and ignoring the results?
Does it have anything to do with English teams doing well in Europe?
Does it have anything to do with a dismissive attitude to Super 14 and the TriNations?
Does it have anything to do with the belief that defence wins world cups?
It has everything to do with denial and a consequent lack of vision.
Wake up England Rugby you have the money and the player base to be competitive the real question is do you have the will to change?

  • 9.
  • At 05:36 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • A kiwi wrote:

Poor ol England badly lacking in confidence and lacking stars apart from twinkle toes Jason Robinson.
Yep England must throw caution to the wind and above all hold onto the damn ball and stop kicking good possesion away.It only gives the opposition another chance to have a go at you.Constuctive play with the ball will always work better than kick and hope.England has got it but will they use it!!!Which side will turn up against Samoa..If they lose they are gone

  • 10.
  • At 07:00 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Woody wrote:

.... so, Who says England are out of the RWC....? Good points Graham (8) above..... but I can't believe the volume of supposed 'loyal' supporters putting the boot into the squad at this key juncture. Channel the ire into the top management of the game at RFU / Prem level who haven't reconciled what is largely a commercial impasse with Premiership clubs running £multi-million enterprises whose success is entirely results-based.

England Tactical Next Steps:

*Confidence & Attitude. Far more passion and the XV fired up and ready to give 120%, nothing else - Compete on all Samoa lineouts,'take them on'and disrupt / win their ball.
* Game Plan. It has to be 'Ball in Hand'. Revert to JW-style hanging 10m short KOs, surge & drive. Zero in field kicking - run good angles; drive; re-cycle and build phases up field.
*Ruck & Maul. Eng must stay on feet & drive (as it used to do to great effect 30m+ Vs SA & Oz & ABs?) to commit opp defence and then release ball with channel options and at pace.
* Selection Vs Samoa (Fwds) Sheridan; Chuter; Freshwater; Shaw; Borthwick; Moody; Dallaglio; Corry. (Backs) Gomershall-9; Wilkinson-10; Cueto-11; Lewsey-12; Flood-13; Hipkiss-14; Farrell-15.
a) Pack to keep it v tight, controlled and secure possession! Controlled & timely ball to launch back line.
b) Backs - no need to recycle lessons learned kicking away prime possession unnecessarily against SA. Gomershall will marshal with far more effect; JW to bring latent tactical; defensive and kicking skills to fore; Josh Lewsey - an excellent & under used talent who I believe would be pivotal with pace & flair outside JW at 12. Toby Flood - recent M-of-M Premiership form Vs Sale... Cueto & Hipkiss in and Eng working to give them far better attacking ball. I select Andy Farrell at 15.... why? In most recent games the back line simply hasn't had any top quality ball - period. He is a talent, will take the high ball and given the game 'control' up front I actually believe that AF could be a potent 'running' weapon coming in from 15 at pace teaming with JW & JL.

  • 11.
  • At 07:04 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Ted wrote:

Are you sure the high-pitched squeeling frenzy was in fact school girls and not England preparing to play their next opponents?

  • 12.
  • At 07:27 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

As an England Fan I must admit that Graham has it right, we are getting now exactly what should be expected from the performances over the last 3-4 years.

I think this has rubbed off somewhat on all the NH teams as well, as they have focused on beating a declining England team, rather than reaching the heights of the best in the world on display currently (SH in general but the All Blacks consistently over the last 3 years)

Hence we see SH teams doing the business against all comers , great and small, whilst the NH teams have struggled to come out on top.

NH teams need to wake up and smell the coffee, or we could have a very long and disappointing path ahead.

  • 13.
  • At 07:38 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Oliver Stephens wrote:

I think it's time to be brutally honest as Mike Ford has been. There are some comments on this board saying how much better English players play in the premiership. Thia may well be true, however, I think the problem is that the premiership isn't as good as we think it is. If you look at the Super 14's, the basic skill level is absolutely miles above that of the premiership. Premiership matches are forward orientated slug fests on the whole while the super 14's are so much more competetive in every area of the field.

I know I may get some angry reactions to this. Note that I am a proud Brit myself, but I have been to many premiership matches and last year to 3 Super 14's matches. The super 14's was faster, more skillful, JUST AS PHYSICAL, and actually, more fun!

I am sorry but until we encourage more running rugby and maul, kick, ruck, kick, maul kick etc, we will continue to fall behind the Southern Hemisphere in terms of back play and creating tries.

  • 14.
  • At 08:46 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Matt wrote:

Woody - thanks for giving me the biggest laugh I've had since watching England on Friday night. Andy Farrell at 15 is a dreadful call; to run lines and link with the backs you need at least a bit of pace - as soon as they started running the move the other backs would simply leave him behind.

I actually don't think Farrell is that bad a player, and certainly doesn't deserve all the stick he's been getting. But 15 is patently not his position.

  • 15.
  • At 09:03 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • genl wrote:

the years between 2003-2007..the all blacks toured the nothern hemisphere twice and twice they left against the top 6 nations teams wining with complete authority and raking up 30-40 point games..the north did nothing to learn or counter this style of play and now are finding failures in their game and are paying for it at the moment..there's still a way to go yet in this tournament and i expect the home unions to step to the mark or else it's gonna get ugly...england need to decide in which direction they want to go with the game of rugby..the way of the big spending owned clubs with overseas player taking the positions of young local players who can't develope their own games through lack of selection or game time or through a national competition that caters for local talent to develope and also to bolster the national team..the club owners are getting fat and greedy while the national side get humiliated..someone step up to the mark and start questioning the administraters,the rugby union,the irb and all officials whats more important.. the state of the game of rugby union in england or the amount of revenue the owners and all club officials and members of the rugby union are making..

  • 16.
  • At 09:43 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • darran mather wrote:

for god's sake just play rugby as it is mean't to be played ie 'pick it up and run with the ball'!! Now I know League as a different dynamic and structure, ie when you're tackled the risk of losing unforced possession is virtually zero unlike in Union but irrespective of that they DO appreciate how to run and pass the ball unlike England who cannot seem to appreciate that the ball itself is not there to be booted to the opposition but to be prized and protected!! That is the whole bloody point of the game!!! Retain possession and score tries. So what does Farrell do against SA? Drop kick's the ball back to them on no less than 5 occasions!!! Abs laughable and utterly incomprehensible. The message that radiates from this team is simple, 'we do not know what to do with the ball'..

england RU should be made to watch St Helens RL in how to create space, run and beat men with ball in hand.

  • 17.
  • At 09:44 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • nigerolly wrote:

OK boys can someone fill me in, I've been away from the uk for 4 years and am having problems accepting that that was the best team we could field. I thought Wilkinson's game was exposed to the world during the Lions tour, we need another plan.

  • 18.
  • At 10:03 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Angusm wrote:

To Simon in post 7, what on earth has it got to do with what sort of school players went to? Surely, your pathetic inverted snobbery and class prejudice is part of the problem. Stereotyping of individuals and their positions on the pitch, has led to one dimensional rugby where players have any flair or unconventional skills coached out of them.
I coach junior rugby and have players from all backgrounds in my squad. I can assure you that school background doesn't dictate ability in the tackle, speed to the breakdown or footballing ability.
Grow up Simon, and put your prejudices back in the bag they came from. If you want to change English rugby, get involved, help the next generation and let's prove these crowing SH countries that we have the players, the skills and the desire to win the WC again.

  • 19.
  • At 10:05 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Andyc wrote:

Athletic, powerfull, fit, precise, fast - all words that do NOT apply to the current England team. The team is summed up perfectly by Shaun Perry, trying their best but simply not up to it. I don't have a problem with the players, they are there doing their level best. But the whole management structure - the RFU board, Rob Andrew, Brian Ashton and his team must do the right thing and step down and allow a new fresh approach (Fair play to Mike Ford for being the only person to face reality). When the squad was announced, i looked at the list in total disbelief, no Flood, Wigglesworth etc. The best game i've seen from an England team recently was England Saxons vs NZ Maori's, i know this is not as intense as a World Cup, but surely these players could do no worse, and they are the players for the future and would now have a world cup experience under their belt.

  • 20.
  • At 10:46 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Spencer wrote:

Ah the typical English obsession with knocking quality.

Wilkinson is without doubt the best kicker England have ever had. It would have been remiss of Woodward not to have used this asset. Additionally Wilkinson operated as an additional back row defensive weapon. For all the nonsense talked England were the leading try scorers in the 6 nations 2001 -2003. 28 in 2001 1 less than the next three teams combined. Hardly the stuff of up the jumper legends that our antipodean cousins would have us believe,

The revisionism would have us believe that England got lucky using this brand of “10 man rugby”. Nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to 2003 England toured the Southern hemisphere played different ways in different conditions and won. Whilst the forwards were a bludgeon used to good effect they were no means the be all and end all of England’s effort. The RWC final represented a triumph of pragmatism. Some players were getting past it and undoubtedly the teams from the Southern stung by their defeats had begun raising their game.

The RWC champions of 2003 bear no responsibility whatever for the failing of their successors. The RFU however have serious questions to answer. Fixture pile ups, Club versus country, Foreign influence, relegation. All issues identified previously have been left to fester. England stand no chance unless a root and branch reformation of English Rugby occurs. It won’t of course too many noses in the trough. A chance to build a great legacy on the back of a great team has been squandered.

  • 21.
  • At 10:58 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • mike p wrote:

Woody is absolutely right (apart from Farrell at no 15!! - second row perhaps more his position?) - we (England especially) will go nowhere whilst the RFU effectively sanctions the PL owners to provide comfy pension plans to all the foreign AB/Aussie and SA freeloaders coming over here after the RWC!!. Get a grip will you, RFU, and bring in a cap on the no. of foreign players allowed per team. English football failed to learn the lesson and look what happening there!!. Nuff said.

  • 22.
  • At 11:19 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Shaun wrote:

Well being a Saffer and enjoying the game last Friday hugely I feel England didnt play all that bad, just South Africa played really really well! Our forwards were dominating from the first contact and our backline was perhaps a yard or three faster than even Jason Robinson, your only quality backline player. Michael Catt is PATHETIC, what he was doing at flyhalf is beyond me. Andy Farell is too slow and has no distribution skills. I think your outside centre Noon received one pass the whole game, when he did get the ball he got injured unfortunately. Do not panic though, we lost to England at Twickenham a few years ago by 50 points, look what a bit of hard work and team work can do to a team.

  • 23.
  • At 11:27 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Shaun wrote:

Well being a Saffer and enjoying the game last Friday hugely I feel England didnt play all that bad, just South Africa played really really well! Our forwards were dominating from the first contact and our backline was perhaps a yard or three faster than even Jason Robinson, your only quality backline player. Michael Catt is PATHETIC, what he was doing at flyhalf is beyond me. Andy Farell is too slow and has no distribution skills. I think your outside centre Noon received one pass the whole game, when he did get the ball he got injured unfortunately. Do not panic though, we lost to England at Twickenham a few years ago by 50 points, look what a bit of hard work and team work can do to a team.

  • 24.
  • At 11:35 AM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Lock Down wrote:

I think the problem lies with the original squad selection. Ashton talked the talk by looking at the younger, exciting and on form players. Then he and/or the other selectors looked at Pool A saw four physical forward orientated games and made the choice to go with big slow proven defence (!!!) and tactical kicking.
If we had realised we were likely to lose by 30+ points we would have played like Namibia (playing for any points)and might have scraped it! I completely agree that a step change is required in England's selection policy. A lot of the premiership teams last weekend would have given the Boks a better game.
We HAVE got dynamic foward ball carriers and exciting backs but I think BA would been laughed out of his job if he had tried to take an 'experimental' squad to defend the RWC. Ironically it might have worked.

  • 25.
  • At 12:22 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Shez Sheridan wrote:

On hearing the news of the side to face Samoa:

Backs = OK agree with most positions here
Forwards = again OK, apart from one GLARING PROBLEM, Martin "journeyman past it" Corry. Not only is he playing but hes captain!

You cant drop Tom Rees on the back of one performance, he is the future.
Wilkinson should have been captain and Corry should not be playing.

Thata my only change, but its a big one.

  • 26.
  • At 12:27 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • darran mather wrote:


  • 27.
  • At 12:45 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Russell wrote:

Angusm - here here.

Woody (post 10) - I agree up until 15. Farrel is possibly the slowest back in the entire world cup; when you want him to be making those last ditch, try-saving tackles he will be panting and wheezing 20 meters away as they jog over the line!

Although the SA game was a humiliation, I dont think anybody could seriously suggest anything different when you have none of your first choice 9, 10 and 12. I'm not making any excuses, SA would probably still have beaten us even without injuries, but there is 1 (or possibly 2) side(s) in the world who could beat the boks with a makeshift back line. Even then they'd struggle.

I'm pleased to see the team for Saturday, much faster and better handling backs, and with Gommersall at 9, hopefully we'll see a quicker more expansive game than Friday. Its time to go for broke and play more, kick less.

Give pace a chance...

  • 28.
  • At 12:49 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Brian Kelly wrote:

We have seen some unexpected results and unexpected performances, (good & bad), during this world cup. The pundits can add or detract from the excitement, understanding and interpretation of a game, dependent upon their experience and knowledge of the game and just as importantly, their objectivity. I'm sure we can all remember the superb commentary of Bill McClaren and the fervour with which he approached his task. Then we have the other end of the scale - just how much longer will we have to suffer the inane and inadequate ineptitudes of Stuart Barnes. His interpretation of the game is hugely suspect and subjective as well as often bordering on the biased.
Surely there are more appropriate 'experts' available.

  • 29.
  • At 01:27 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • eugene wrote:

Lots of slagging for the English performance, but do not forget how brilliant the Boks were. They were excellent against a dangerous Samoa and faultless against the English. I cannot believe they will be able to keep that performance level up for the whole tournament and predict they lose out in the semis.

Meanwhile, i would like to defend Farrel - his passing does create opporunities to break defences - he has that vision which is vital to a winning team - do not use him as a scapegoat for a poor English performance.

I can see the English making it to the quarters where they will meet Australia and if they stick the ball up their jumper and kick their penalties then they can beat the Aussies. Which hurts me to say as I am Welsh and like an expansive game.

  • 30.
  • At 04:56 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Norman Macdonald wrote:

England never seem to have a Plan B.

If Plan A is not working, then give it even more of Plan A.

There is not, nor ever has been, any subtlety in the English game. They win when they have an overwhelming pack.

Even when they had the world's best threequarters - Duckham, Spencer, Fielding, Webb - and an immense pack, they couldn't find a pair of half-backs to make them gel.

What England need, more than anything, is a bit of intellect on the pitch, combined with a selection which provides options.

  • 31.
  • At 08:04 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Laura wrote:

I was at the England training in Versailles and an explanation for the England flags may be the fact that there were about 200 children from the British school of Paris eagerly supporting their heroes and who certainly knew all the players names not just Wil-kin-son and Rob-in-son! The England team were extremely friendly and welcoming and spent ages patiently signing autographs for all the star stuck children. The Children also happily sang happy birthday to Catt during which I failed to hear a whistle or boo. Let’s hope they can keep everyone as happy by winning on Saturday!

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