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Myopic England look on bright side

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Ben Dirs | 19:27 UK time, Sunday, 14 February 2010

Is there any situation Steve Borthwick wouldn't take "lots of positives" from? Getting mugged? Having his car keyed? Losing his house in a game of cards? I can picture him now, beaming across at his opponent and announcing: "I never liked that bathroom suite anyway".

Judging from some of the texts that poured in after England's narrow Six Nations defeat of Italy in Rome, there are plenty of you with a similar mindset to the England captain: "Stop bashing our brave boys", "a win is a win", that sort of stuff. I found these texts more depressing than the game itself.

But they open up an interesting philosophical, not to mention cultural, debate: does the England rugby team so often struggle to fulfil its potential, as measured by player numbers and financial clout, because of a deep-seated acceptance of mediocrity? I don't have a definitive answer, but I doubt many members of the New Zealand or South African public would be so sanguine after such a disjointed display by their team.

It should be acknowledged that in Rome on Sunday, Nick Mallett's Italy were a different side to the one that looked so insipid against Ireland last weekend. Muscular as always up front, they created quick ball at the breakdown and even showed flickers of ambition. But England should never have been clinging on for dear life at the death, they should already have been miles out of sight.

borthwick595.jpgEngland captain Steve Borthwick said he took "lots of positives" from England's narrow win over Italy

One of the mantras of Martin Johnson's England side is "play rugby in the right areas", namely in the opposition's half. But there is more than one right area: when you field a long kick and there is one man in front of you with a supporting player outside, surely that, too, is a "right area"?

The frustration was that when England decided to counter, they looked dangerous. Delon Armitage, Mark Cueto and Ugo Monye are destructive broken play runners, and Johnson admitted afterwards that "when we countered, we were good". So why all the mindless kicking?

Jerry Guscott, the former England centre who was particularly adept at playing what he saw in front of him rather than blindly obeying orders, reckons England's back three have been "brainwashed". "Robots", he calls them, and scared of failure.

"Intelligence without ambition," someone once said, "is like a bird without wings". Which begs the question, does this England team have the requisite intelligence in the first place? The intelligence to think for themselves, to honestly appraise their failings?

Judging by the post-match interviews with a trio of England's players, Borthwick, Cueto and Riki Flutey, who declared himself "really happy" with the result, then the answer perhaps is no.

Johnson, too, appeared to be watching a different game. "We created some really good try-scoring chances," he said, before adding "there's plenty for us to get better at". I can relate to that second quote best.

Behind closed doors, the post-mortem will be more honest and more rigorous. But by trotting out the same old platitudes to England's fans, the players are eroding confidence. How can England improve, less jingoistic supporters will be asking themselves, if what was served up in Rome is deemed, in public at least, acceptable?

There is another philosophical question, which centres on the point of sport itself. Countering from deep can not only be a potent attacking weapon, it is also infinitely better to watch than 80 joyless minutes of aerial ping-pong.

Call me a hopeless romantic, call me a dinosaur, but when you've got 30,000 fans in the stadium and millions watching world-wide, surely there is some duty to entertain? "A win is a win" is the sporting equivalent of meat and potatoes: it fills a hole, but it's not likely to make the heart sing.

On Saturday, France showed against Ireland that a combination of the practical and the more poetic can be both beguiling and devastating. But maybe I'm missing the point altogether and France's players are simply more talented: Team A beat Team B because they had better players... sports journalism could be so much more succinct.

Johnson should have some big decisions to make before England's next game against Ireland at Twickenham in a fortnight. Is Jonny Wilkinson still the man at fly-half, or should Toby Flood be given a chance? Is Borthwick the right leader in a crisis? I say "should", because Johnson is loyal to a fault and won't change a jot.

Still, look on the bright side: England have two wins out of two and the Grand Slam is still on... no, I just can't do it Steve, teach me the power of positive thinking...

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  • Comment number 1.

    Personally i thought that England were dire today. Italy played out of their skins and really had England under the cosh for quite a bit in the second half.

    I thought that Moody was extremely lucky not to see a yellow card in the second half, had he have recieved one then England may well have lost the match.

    Monye is an incredible runner of the ball but he has absolutely no awareness for who is around him. At least twice in the match he missed a chance to offload for an England try.

    All in all, England played 2 won 2 which is what they would have hoped for but there needs to be a lot more improvement.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'd say that ranked amongst the worst performances I've seen from an England team in a long time. Of course, they were always in a position that was mostly lose-lose. If they won by a generous margin, well, it was ONLY Italy. If they just won, well, that's where we are sin't it? It that the best we could do? If we LOST, well, there were times that that seemed possible today and it didn't feel good.

    I just don't get it. In the Autumn internationals the ball spent more time in the air than in the hand. Aimless kicking away of possession. They were stultified with little to no imagination. 60-odd minutes before a scrum half made a break. Then last week against the Welsh, they suddenly seemed to remember that actually, they are allowed to run ball in hand.

    Today? Back to ping-pong. Yes, there were breaks (usually lone breaks with no-one in support) and yes, we looked dangerous. Then it was back to watching a frankly boring kicking competition, developing tennis-observer's neck and wondering where all the imagination and flair had gone.

    Two games out of two. Great! Now, if we can only remember what it means to play rugby with the ball in hand, we MIGHT just win another one. What chances do you think?

    Odds anyone?

  • Comment number 3.

    Agree that England are a very frustrating team. Their tactical kicking has been poor for years and there are so many times when you just want them to run the ball and they just kick it away. Tait and Monye were fantastic Sevens players and are a threat to anyone in broken play. Italy were very good today, and had Jonny not missed a few kicks and the good line breaks England made been converted into tries (something they must learn to do), it would have been a lot more comfortable. England should be a good side, but they are restricted by their game plan. Still, at least they've won 2 matches and given themselves the opportunity to play better against Ireland. They'll need to.

  • Comment number 4.

    Will it be more honest behind closed doors? I'm starting to doubt it. I thought Dallaglio was just trying to grab headlines when he first said England were afraid of Johnson, I think he might be right.

    Today was disgusting for me as an England fan not because of the scoreline but because we had so much more to offer and gave nothing because rather than aim to win the game we opted not to lose it! When counter-attacking we looked immense, I was hoping most the time that Italy kicked to us that their chase would be good enough to force us to run with the ball! I feel as though this team has let itself down and let us down, just as it did 2 years ago, I don't consider this performance to be worth celebrating at all because I know we had so much more to offer if we had kept ball in hand!

  • Comment number 5.

    England are really really rubbish at admitting how rubbish they are. There is an element of delusion in the camp. They think they are a whisker away from being a world class team whereas all the evidence points to the fact they are in fact one giant bushy beard away from being world class. I would like to see basic common courtesy extended to all the fans who suffer and pay money to watch and follow England by having a member of the management come out and say "That was just not good enough. We were poor. You deserve better."

    England have no mastery whatsoever of the common modern-game kicking tactic of kicking the ball deep into the corners in the tramlines, forcing the defending team to put it out from a narrow angle or return it infield presenting a great counter-attacking opportunity. You know, the kind of kicks Dan Carter was doing 5 years ago. Instead they kick, find a man, and hope for a turnover. Failing to run the ball back is nearly always down to a lack of confidence; in the player himself and the confidence he has in his team mates to help him out and not get turned over. There is also a clear mantra in the players' heads that they can't possibly run it if they are in their own half. Why? If it is on, give it a crack! It is what separates New Zealand and France from the rest of the international teams; they can see when it's on and take the chance, regardless of field position. England, sadly, have no such ability.

    If the performance does not improve, Ireland, Scotland and France will all be favourites.

  • Comment number 6.

    I dont understand how, if Wilkinson is playing so badly (and on top of that not kicking like he usually does), why was Toby Flood sat on the bench twiddling his thumbs and not sent on to replace him.

    Tait and Cueto are for me the only players that actually stood out at all. Neither got the ball nearly enough times during the match to do anything useful, except for the try.

    When will England stop picking those players that dont perform week in and week out, yet are in the squad because of past form, and pick those that are actually playing well?!

  • Comment number 7.

    England were poor, but got the points.
    That's my match assessment. My assessment of Borthwick as skipper of his nation's rugby team (a huge honour), is slightly more pointed! When being interviewed on the BBC after the match, he talked like an extra from Eastenders, and swigged liquid (a la soccerboy) from a plastic bottle-what an advert for the great game!
    He may take some "pozzyives" from the match, but could he not take some advice on good grace instead?

  • Comment number 8.

    England's biggest problem is lack of foresight - a world cup 18 months away...does anyone think they'll challenge the likes of New Zealand and South Africa with Wilkinson at fly half or with two wings that whilst solid performers show no real creativity?

    I don't even support England but get annoyed when it's clear they do have players at their disposal that can do these things - Cipriani/Geraghty/Simpson-Daniel/Foden (sorry, not an Armitage fan). Sure people will disagree but these players do more than run hard in a straight line and offer a side step. The forwards get decent ball but it's all one dimensional after that.

    England have won 2 out of 2 but on different days could easily have lost 2 out of 2 quite easily with those performances.

  • Comment number 9.

    the thing that stood out for me was the interviews after the game. 4 - 5 years ago there was a definite difference between the quality of comment you got from rugby players compared to soccer players in the same situation. now its dull, anodyne platitudes all round, very disappointing.

    watching the game I think England's game plan went out of the window after 2 minutes when Italy didn't lie down and let them run in a try from the beginning, "running doesn't work, lets kick the leather off the ball for the rest of the afternoon"

  • Comment number 10.

    The best team England have had in recent years was the 2003 vintage who won in style when they could, but most imnportantly they could WIN UGLY, which is the difference between a good team and a great team. New Zealand can only win with style, how many times have they choked because they couldn't handle the pressure and grind out a win when it counts i.e. world cup time????

    Now todays match wasn't winning ugly, but it was a case of soaking up pressure and grinding out a win. They were playing a good italian side who had the bit between their teeth and who were good value for causing an upset. If Sergio Parisse had been playing today England would of lost.

    Wales and Scotland had better watch out because the Italians are getting better every year. I think that the years of the Azzuri finishing 3rd or 4th in the 6N aren't far away. And if they play like they did against England today both Wales and Scotland will struggle to match them.

    Finally, if England had won by 50 points you get the 'oh its only italy' comments, but because they came close we are expected to lambast them. Winning is winnig FACT 1 point or 100 points it makes no difference, a victory is all that matters as Ireland proved with the 14-13 result against England last year.

  • Comment number 11.

    It’ interesting to compare the post-match interviews of O’Driscoll and Borthwick after their games against Italy. O’Driscoll was genuinely disappointed with what was a solid Irish win in the opening game of the championship, while Borthwick seemed delighted with a truly awful England performance.

    After the glimmers of promise England had shown against Wales they returned today to the mindless aerial ping-pong that we had all been subjected to through the autumn internationals. Is confidence in the camp so low that any post-match interview has to be nothing but positive no matter what has happened during the match?

  • Comment number 12.

    Ben, i think your wrong to expect anything different from the likes of Johnson and Borthwick. Criticisms (of which there are many) made by these two men would further undermine English confidence. The players, coaches and fans all know England were very average today.

    Yet the most worrying thing for me is that progression seems a hope more than a reality. Johnson has been in charge for 18 months, and while we can see a positive improvement in the forwards, the point scoring backs are still in the wilderness. I would like to see Johnson throw caution to the wind and let these backs play flowing french style rugby. Against the flair of France,Ireland and even Scotland , 2 from 2 could quite easily become 2 from 5.

  • Comment number 13.

    'loyal to a fault' is one way to say it.

    A bad coach is another. The 'take them on up front and kick for territory and to not get caught' gameplan was so wrongheaded against Italy.

    Regarding Wilko - haven't we been here before? Didn't Brian Ashton have to drop him two years ago after a couple of six nations games? A certain young FH went on to destroy Ireland later on in that competition. I wonder what happened to him...

  • Comment number 14.

    I've certainly been in teams with less than astute captaincy (and I've probably captained a good number of them) and I've certainly come across "dumb" teams (regardless of the intelligence or ability of individual players). Still, I'm not convinced that the English effort should be written off as another case of the same.

    The Italy game wasn't a triumphal procession from the English point of view, and I'm pretty sure, regardless of what they say to the press, that the English players don't think that this was their finest hour. However, I've (quite often) seen good teams thrown out of gear by lesser sides which raise their games, and often the level of anarchy, for the "big one". Sometimes it's for no more arcane a reason that some players wish to avoid physical risks in games against lesser opposition. Perhaps it might be more gracious to emphasise Italy's accomplishment in making the English team look less than it is than to pretend that their quite obvious tigerishness should not have influenced the game.

    When he was coaching South Africa, Mallett routinely produced a fairly high injury rate in both his own side and the opposition's. I felt that I was seeing evidence of the same in Italy's performance. I remember when Irish sides were like that. Perhaps for now England supporters should be pleased with the win (despite views that there is something wrong with that) and the fact that it was achieved without writing players off, and contain any hysterical response occasioned by the fact that Italy is no longer a pushover.

    Then we can all agree that we're still awaiting the imperious performances which have come and gone in recent decades.

  • Comment number 15.

    As for the media comments by Johnson & Borthwick, they are utterly worthless, like most of the endless pre and post game media circus. However, England's tactics were abysmal & either Johnson is clueless as a coach or the players ignore his advice. Johnson should go but, more importantly, Rob Andrew, who is paid a ludicrous salary largely for hiring & firing the England coach, should go as well.

  • Comment number 16.

    Once domestic rugby at the highest levels became entwined with the entertainment industry, the need to win, to be recognized, to draw crowds, to hype franchised team-wear, in short to make money, resulted in club management playing the odds. Don't try that, the odds of success are too low. The better chance of winning comes from letting the other side make mistakes. Hence the boring mediocrity we currently see from English rugby. And soccer. Compare the Africans, Asians, who play with gusto and invention. None of SH countries are burdened with this dependence on winning at all costs to maintain profits until they arrive on these shores in the twilight of their careers to make a bit of retirement cash.
    The reason no English player shows any invention or magical skill is because it is beaten out of them at their clubs. They have become slaves to percentages.

  • Comment number 17.

    Simple really, there is a "certain" way to play if you want to beat the best teams & - possibly - win the World Cup. I'm not qualified to say what is "that" way, but this wasn't it. You & I can see it. The problem is, Martin Johnson, for whatever reason, chooses not to. Sadly, this hero of the game is going the same way as another hero, Kevin Keegan: elevated beyond his capability on a wave of public enthusiasm, to be made to look a fool and, frankly, loathed.

  • Comment number 18.

    I thought England were dire on all fronts. Italy were courageous and full of heart, but without their one truly world class player in Parisse it should only ever have been a matter of damage limitation for them.

    England should have gone into this game mindful that points difference played a bit part in last years Six Nations table, and Italy are by far the best chance they have of "filling their boots".

    Lack of ambition is an understatement. They have to get this "a win is a win" mentality out of their system against weaker teams. Against the All Blacks, or South Africa, a win is a win, but against smaller teams you have to fundamentally believe that over 80 minutes, if you play your best rugby, you will be too much for your opponents, and the scoreboard will tell.

  • Comment number 19.

    England's 15 red roses wilted like flowers bought from a roadside stall on February 13th. No platform for the future only regrets for the past. If only England could have played with the imagination and half the courage of the Scots or the Welsh.

  • Comment number 20.

    Its not the winning that bothers me (oddly enough!), or the capability of "winning ugly", its the simple lack of anything remotely resembling creative thought or ambition in this England side.

    I got excited the couple of times I saw Johnny step up to less than 10 yards behind a ruck, and when Tait and Flutey were taking the ball flat...only then for Monye to not look up or a simple error to ruin it.

    The "grind it up em" game plan was always going to suck because, frankly, our front 5 arent good enough to take on the italian front 5 at any stage, despite his binning, Castro was awesome as usual, and i can only remember one decent play by Hartley in the entire game. So we were stuck with un-ambitious, aimless, kicking from Wilko (who admittedly had a nightmare today). On the subject of Wilkinson: How gutted must Flood have been? even when precious St. Johnny took a knock Flood was ingnored, despite the fact it appeared Wilkinson was kicking blindfolded Flood was ignored, despite Wilkinson repeatedly kicking away good possession Flood was ingored...I think that says far more about the coaching set up and gameplan than the rest of the drivel we've had to endure. Taking 5 forwards was a big error, 2 of those forwards being big cumbursome lumps (Deacon and Wilson) showed that nothing was ever likely to come from the bench to impact the game, then ignoring the ONE creative player named on the bench DESPITE your flyhalf having arguably his worst game of the season? Really? I worshipped MJ the player, MJ the captain, MJ the man. However, MJ the coach appears to not know what to do with a very talented bunch of players, and is, it appears, too scared of losing. To the point that he is instilling a vapid lack of ambition in this england squad: personified by his captain. Saying that, I think Borthwick was one of the few players whose performance wasnt totally awful, he was definately the most prominant of the england pack (probably because he was one of the only ones not to be substituted!) and was alot more effective than Shaw and Haskell today.

    England have to start changing things. New blood, new tactics and new ideas are definately needed. Its not a good time to revamp the squad now, but after the nations I would like to see wholesale changes brought around in the England set up. We have players like Cipriani, Geraghty, Flood, Allen, Foden, Ashton, Tait, Monye, Armitage, Croft, Haskell, Lawes, Care, Youngs, Flutey...and many more who I cant be bothered to name. players with pace, skill, creativity who make and score tries for their clubs on a week in, week out basis: why are they ignored/misused by their country? Why was Foden dropped off the bench to make room for a 3rd prop today? Why was Wilko starting at 10 when we all knew how he was going to play? (and that it would play into the Italians' strenghts?) Would it not have been an ideal oppurtunity to try Flood/Geraghty/Cipriani/Walder at 10? with Flutey outside any potential defensive mismatches would be vastly reduced. We were playing Italy, not France or Ireland who have devastating three-quarters and half backs (when they turn up!), it would have been the ideal oppurtunity to try something different, but no: Same old, same old, lump-and-hope, lump-and-hope...frankly: im getting sick of it.

    Win by all means, but this reaguard action that seems to be the preeminant thought in English rugby at the moment is seriously impacting my love of the game.

  • Comment number 21.

    Borthwick was being defensive because he knew they were going to be slammed and he wanted to point out that there were some positives while he had a chance.

    The point Ben makes about Englands fans accepting mediocraty is nonsense most fans have been rightly slamming the performances of the team since from 2005 onwards and it has achieved nothing. The truth is that Johnsons reluctance to drop players who have put in good performances in the past on the basis of one or two bad performances is a good thing. Constantly changing selections did nothing for England between 2004 and the 2007 world cup. There is something to be said for not being satisfied but you also need to be realistic we finished 3rd or 4th for four straight 6 nations campaigns so finishing 2nd in the last two is a step forward (yes I know Johnson has only been in charge for one of these) You might want us to be further forward with our resources I would too but my suspicion is that if you go back to the drawing board like we did so many times during the period I just mentioned, just because you think we should be better, then all you are going to do is go backwards.

    An example of what I am talking about is all the calls for Foden to be in the team. Foden maybe great but Armitage was easily the best fullback of the 2009 6 nations and Englands best player in the 2008 AI's. Is adding Foden really going to change things?

    This idea that we should automatically be better than any other team because we have the most resources is ridiculous do the USA always win the international Ice hockey tournaments, no! (I am sure they have the most players/money by a long way) do they even always win the international basketball tournaments these days, no (the difference in resources there must be far greater than the difference between England and France in RU). I am not saying there is no correlation but we cannot just assume we have the best players and the selection/tactics/attitude is wrong if we don't win because of the resources. Our closest rivals in terms of resources players and money would be France they have fared a bit better than us in recent years but we beat them in the world cup and in the last 3 6 nations, are they in crisis no.

    One last thought Wales LOST to Italy in 2007 and they won a grandslam in 2008.

  • Comment number 22.

    England/Italy games are almost always like this one. England's performance today was neither better nor worse than the norm against Italy and I wouldn't draw any conclusions from it.

    Next fixture will be the real test.

  • Comment number 23.

    castro/leicester,perugini/bayonne ,ortolami/gloucester,bergamasco brothers/stade francais,gower/bayonne,masi/racing,canale/clermont...they are professional players,do you know?they play in your tournaments?nothing wrong to have a tough match against them in rome...maybe is a real 6 nations..and if italian teams will enter in the celtic league,will be better an better.

  • Comment number 24.

    Octavius, your point is valid but I must confess, as a Welshman, it is very frustrating watching such a poor performance as that given by England today. Quite frankly, you have the resources at both club and national level, both financially and in terms of strength in depth, to give most teams a run for their money.

    However, this has been distinctly lacking over the past few years with England struggling to put a decent run of games together. Part of this is to do with the tactical approach adopted by the coaches and the team selected as well as some disappoitning performances by players who have more potential than they actually fulfill.

    Take nothing away from Italy though, a real pleasure to watch them attack a game with such gusto as well as display some real intent to play good rugby.

    Although Borthwick may well have been trying to protect his team from the rather inevitable media and public backlash, I for one would have respected him far more if he was a bit more honest in his assessment of the game.

    Certainly an interesting end to an excellent weekend of rugby. Still all to play for!!

  • Comment number 25.

    England's play seems to sum up what's wrong with the game at so many levels. Keith Wood said yesterday that the first twenty minutes of France Ireland "reminded us all of why we wanted to play the game". Wales Scotland was poor in quality but rich in endeavour and excitement. It seems to me that the only reason to watch an England game is to see the opposition. Blinkered, ultra-conservative,stultifying, "spirit-crushing - as the text reporter on BBC described today's performance - all of these seem to sum up England's attitude to the game.

    Wales gifted England last week's game by managing to avoid playing for 60 minutes - shame on them - and giving away a comically stupid sin-bin.

    England's performance leaves me waiting with baited breath for the incredible all-consuming excitement of the curling at the WInter Olympics.
    Please -someone - give us back our game!!

  • Comment number 26.


    The standard of Italy's personel isn't the issue. Italy have these players, and more (Gowan for example!) and set up to play a certain way, and usually do a fairly good job of it.

    Im sure that what I, and my fellow disappointed England fans, are miffed about is the manner in which England played. I didnt expect Italy to roll over, infact I expected an Italian try, (pre game I said it would be 28-13). The fact that we "only just" won is neither here nor there, had it been 42-41 Im sure that many fans would be happier than they are now, as it would have meant that England opened up, proved they could play rugby and showed to the world that they can actually think and play attacking rugby, instead of the impotant drivel we had to endure this afternoon

  • Comment number 27.

    Not a great performance, agreed, but tell me that next match, if England win well, there won't be a similar blog saying how England are wonderful, talking up their chances of winning the world cup etc etc.
    Which is the problem with sports journalism - you're paid to jump on whichever bandwagon is rolling on that day. I'd be much more interested in a blog reviewing England at the end of the tournament, when you can take a balanced look at the team performance over a few games. One game doesn't make a team woeful or world cup winners...

  • Comment number 28.

    H_a- " The 'take them on up front and kick for territory and to not get caught' gameplan was so wrongheaded against Italy."

    couldn't agree more. with the team selection (especially the bench) and noises coming out about a "hard game" and "wearing them down up fron" before the game this was always going to happen. i predicted exactly this kind of game. by focussing on the oppositions strength we essentially lowered ourselves to their level, same as we did against argentina in the ai's.

    re wilkinson not being taken off... i'm sure johnson seems to leave one back on the bench in most games. i might be wrong but pretty sure more often than not he does. with a 5-2 forwards/back bench split this meant that the back left to sit it out was our 10 cover instead of the "utility" back.

    one final note. the kick tait made from inside his 22 to the opposite 22 hardly got a mention in commentary. if kearney or bryne made that they'd have been creaming themselves in the commentary box.

    one last final note. tait seems to have lost some pace (noticed on both the intercept try last week and his own try today) since a few years ago. he looks bigger but doesn't seem to have the burst like in 2007. intresting that in an interview before the wales game he talked about being put through a bulking up programme and being left feeling slugish. wouldn't it be ironic if now hes deemed "big" enough he no longer has the raw pace that was his real asset.

  • Comment number 29.

    it,s ok.i've understood.p.s.gowan is gower?

  • Comment number 30.

    On re-reading Octavius' comments - Wales won a grand slam because they had flair and talent! France is an inexpressibly better unit than England (even in the grunt) - they have mucked it up by a lack of consistent selection but now they look ominous. England lack flair - simple as that - a huge playing population - a strong (if fundamentally dull) league - but lacking in talent. Wilkinson is a kicker and a defender - as an attacking, opening, breaking 10 he doesn't rate and in today's game that's fatal (See Ireland with O'Gara and Scotland as examples). Behind him - Flutey and Armitage are top-class, then end of story. Its' grunt, kick, grunt, kick! Save us from it

  • Comment number 31.

    For a start we must give credit to Italy. I think that this was the most complete performance that Italy have yet achieved in the Six Nations, and it will interesting to see how they build on to this. They had posed serious problems up front for some time, but today they passed and ran wityh much more fluency than hitherto.

    It is true that England were a real disappointment.But we knew that the front row were going to face a very stern test. Italy were always likely to have something of an edge there. But they were surely not helped by the fact that three of the England back five had been ill this week. Just how ill? And how much of a dip in energy levels by the Borthwick and Shaw and Moody could be supported and still be competitive must have been something of a concern. Surely Shaw had one of his most invisible games for some years; and Borthwick never drives far across the gain line. The trouble is that England played 8 days ago, and do not really have an established second-string second row.

    The problems up front had repurcussions for the half-backs and backs. But I started a thread on 606 in the Autumn about Jonny Wilkinson the attacker. The signs are that he has become somewhat stale, unimaginative and obsessed with what he can achieve as "the great jonno" with hands and feet. I hardly recall a single time that JW just passed the ball to Flutey and allowed Flutey to read the game from inside centre, as opposed to Wales who seem to keep the faith with passing the ball down the line, just as a great musician practices scales- for fluencies sake. Flutey seemed to work much better off Flood last year, and one has to wonder whether JW has become too much of a talisman to England so that the other 14 players can feel that JW will pull the game out of the bag.

    But surely the most worrying sign is the way that the back three all at different times suffered from tunnel vision and, having made some good ground seemed to think that they would go for glory and run the length of the pitch. Haskell's second try against Wales and Tait's try today were reminders that the essence of the game is all about running, passing, and then running support lines. Tait scored because he gave the pass out and was on hand to receive a pass back.

    It is just as well that there is now a two-week break. It looked like England need some recuperation time. Plus signs were that three new props got some meaningful experience and Deacon did not look out of place.. But oh for a number eight who could make those runs!

  • Comment number 32.

    29. At 11:26pm on 14 Feb 2010, speca matteo wrote:

    it,s ok.i've understood.p.s.gowan is gower?


    My bad!! haha. I don't know much about him, but as someone who has represented Australia at rugby league: he can't be a half bad rugby player ey?

  • Comment number 33.

    " Flutey seemed to work much better off Flood last year,"

    this was fluteys first game back since last year so a bit early to be making those statements. and flutey was good today and wilkinson created when playing flat. he just doesnt' do it enough, because of the gameplan.

    the game plan is the real problem. every player who fielded a kick deep kicked the ball back (on most occasions) no matter who it was, that points towards it being the given tactic. some players need to make the decision to change this but the problem is that if someone runs it back from deep when nobody is expecting it then it can cause problems, so 3/4 players have to make the decision to do this together. like they said in commentary, the back 3 have to work as a group and the forwards have to retreat quicker so that the runner doesn't have to go 30m to allow support at the breakdown, just 10-20.

  • Comment number 34.

    It is patently obvious that Johnson and the coaches have the tactical straitjacket on this side, and the players are, as Dallaglio pointed out, scared of him.

    Respect to Italy, they played well, a lot better than how anyone would have expected after last week (though they are always better in Rome) of that there is no doubt.

    In was England's dire approach to the game that is most disappointing. I think all this talk about this-player and that-player coming in is totally pointless. Why? Because they would be drilled to play a particular role in the same muscular, impotent system.

    I thought so at the time, and 18 months on are even more convinced - full respect to Johnson as a rugby player, but has not coached before in any capacity and unfortunately the limits of his vision is there for all to see.

  • Comment number 35.

    Yes the tactics were wrong but it is not Jingoistic to state that I am satisfied with the win and that England have won two of their games. England played poorly but surely Wales, Scotland and Ireland have had worse games recently. Why are us English so critical about our own team, it annoys me that people can watch England win a match and yet have nothing but negative things to say about it. The try scored by England was fantastic and showed a lot of flair and inventiveness, Wilkinson's drop- goal was a perfect example of tactical kicking working well. Personally I love it when England run with the ball and hopefully they will change their tactics against a shell-shocked Irish side at Twickenham. But if they don't and still win the game by a single point then I will still be happy enough.

    Maximum points from two games. Why not wait until England actually loses a game before sharpening the knife.

  • Comment number 36.

    Englands post-match comments are not as ridiculous as they seem. The game was dire, but not for the reasons many think. Shocking fact: Statistically, with ball in hand, England had their best game for several yrs, including v Fra in 2009. I couldn’t believe it either, but read the stats below and watch the game again…its actually true

    In 80mins, England had 97 phases of play while in possession:
    First half – 45 phases (12 kicked; 16 taken into fringe / close-contact; 17 run wide)
    Second half – 52 phases (20 kicked; 21 close-contact; 11 run)

    40% kick-rate for second half is far too high, esp v Italy. But here’s the shocker: Of the 28 phases that were run, 10 resulted in a full breach of the Italian defence, and 2 more were dangerous half-breaks. A break percentage of nearly 50% is almost unheard of (Intl average is about 15%, against Italy about 30%).

    I think the more balanced conclusions to draw are: Englands attack is highly effective with Flutey (even with JohnnyW) but finishing was poor; England kick far too much (of the 32 kicks, only 5 bounced in-field – v poor and I think JM made this point pitchside); Contact nr fringes was OK (gain line crossed around 65% of the time); England sadly hardly even tried a counter-attack.

    I know, someone needs to get out more, but interesting that the real problem is not England’s creativity in attack, for the first time in ages this is getting there, it’s their kick strategy and reluctance to counter. That’s a fact, and presumably fairly easily put right…

  • Comment number 37.

    More depressing even than the England's performance was the sight of Borthwick attempting to get CastroGiovanni sent off in the final minutes of the game. Is this what has become of the professional game?
    Well done Brian Moore for publicly chastising him.

  • Comment number 38.

    Goodness, Where does one start to comment on a performance like that? I have to agree with Ben that if supporters settle for mediocrity it doesn't exactly encourage a positive pressure for improvement. However, all of us who have supported England through feast and famine over many years have all been here before, again and again and again! Sadly we are not alone as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and even France have shown promise over the years in one game only to stumble and crawl like fledgling children in the next, apparently bereft of cohesion, continuity,let alone a compass.

    It is extraordinary that after the Carling era it took us a good 10 years to find our feet again when Woodward took the RFU by the throat and demanded continuity and cohesion needed for the long term preparation of a stable system. It is unbelievable that so much of what was good from that time has been embraced by the Southern Hemisphere and abandoned by England in Particular.

    I am not suggesting that Sir Clive was totally sane and got it all right all the time, far from it, but he understood how to plan, how to lay foundations and how to set out the platform for success which should have stabilised England's position in the elite group of countries alongside the Southern Hemisphere, for many years after his World Cup Triumph.

    Sadly, no sooner had they returned with the Cup, than the RFU began disempowering the management, taking away the access to players and dismantling the structure which had given them the Holy Grail they had so desired. Having failed entirely to sort out their issues with the clubs over club and country priorities, they had no option but to buckle to the needs of the clubs.

    The richest rugby nation on the planet failed to establish player contracts which adequately compensated the clubs for the loss of their top players because they were short sighted and weak.

    God I didn't mean to go on like this I apologise, but like Magnus Magnuson, I've started so I'll finish!

    I could go on and on, but suffice to say, England's demise started when we lost our strength in depth partly due to the lack of structured support of the clubs. This has been exacerbated by the lack of attention to detail, especially in peripheral areas of training and man management and much of that boils down to a lack of resources.

    Just remember that when Clive Woodward asked for things and was told "NO" (and this was a pounds shillings and pence resourse issue), he took it upon himself to find the funds privately, because his brain worked like that and "NO" wasn't acceptable once he had set his mind on something. Martin Johnson can't be expected to do that, he's an iconic leader and should simply be given the resources he needs as a matter of respect and then I am sure that he will have fantastic success, but in three years time, not today or tomorrow, it doesn't work like that.

    We short changed Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton, so I implore the RFU to look no further than their own doorstep for the reasons that the National team is faltering, and ask them to question whether it's not time for them to step aside for men with other skills and visions, men who have been there and done it, both on and off the field. It's no good looking at the players and management every time the public get frustrated. I can assure you that the frustration in the changing room is a 100 times greater, irrespective of what is said in press conferences.

  • Comment number 39.

    Why are positives taken out of games?
    When it should be the(many on Sunday) negatives that are taken out of games

  • Comment number 40.

    The Answer to the question you seek Ben I suggest you need to look at English sport as a whole rather than just the rugby team. Yes I know that England won the ashes last year, and I know England won the 2003 Rugby World Cup and deservedly so. But the problem lies in the attitude of a nation that is arrogant. The sportsmen are arrogant, the press are arrogant and judging by lots of forums on the net, the supports are too. You believe your own hype, think you are better than you are and therefore produce mediocre performances. Not just that, but there is so much money in sport there that the majority of sportsmen and women are now paycheck performers.

    Harsh but true I am afraid. Getting back to basics with hard work and a little modesty will see England right but I fear that has long gone and will struggle to ever get that back....due to the money on offer.

  • Comment number 41.

    Ben, completely agree with your comments. The most frustrating things I found about the match was:
    1)The management had obviously decided it was not going to be an attacking game plan from the off, having dropped Foden off the bench for a prop... imagine what a counterattacking player like Foden could have created from some of the aimless kicking from Italians (just as bad as the English kicking). This just stinks of the 'win at all costs' mentality that Johnno always had, not a bad thing, but what always made it work in the past was there were players who would argue and say they wanted to play an attacking game too (Dawson, Greenwood, Robinson)... and I would have to agree with Dallaglio that this team seem scared to even suggest running it. The few times England actually ran it we genuinely looked dangerous, but it just was not used enough. You bring Flutey in to create, then why not create? He got it in hand a couple of times and broke the line, this is what the management should be encouraging. It is so demoralising to see the back three players catch a kick and the first thing they do is look long and where to kick rather than the first 20m in front of them and whether they can run. Anyway, everything I have said has been said by people on this page and others... I wonder whether it gives Johnno a siege mentality, hence his stubbornness to stick with who he has picked...
    2) All we want as fans is honesty. Do the England team not realise if we are watching the post match interviews we have probably watched the match too? Being told 'lots of positives' is like a massive slap in the face, don't patronise us, tell us how it is. A win is a win, every fan will accept that but I for one cannot accept being told it was a good performance when it clearly wasn't. I almost flew over from the Middle East to Rome for this game and whilst the craic was sure to be good, thank god i didn't waste my money to watch something so dire.
    3) Now, this is just wishful thinking but thought I would say it anyway. Wilko did not play well, and missed some kicks, which some people would say is why he is in the team. Therefore, bring in Flood, or even Geraghty. With Flutey inside directing, either player could handle it. Did anyone see Ashton scored 2 tries at the weekend? Didn't see the actual tries myself but the man cannot stop scoring, so bring him in, probably for Monye who makes some excellent breaks but NEVER looks around for support. I am a massive fan of both Armitage brothers but I think Delon has been rushed back before he is fully over his injury and back at top match fitness. Bring in the form player of the Premiership in Foden, give him a licence to play as he sees it and lets see what he can do. Imagine a back line being directed by Geraghty and Flutey releasing strike runners like Tait, Foden, Ashton and Cueto... now that is a side that can score tries! (Incidentally, I realise my thoughts are quite Saints-biased but I am not a Saints fan, they just have the form players at the moment). Finally, why oh why do we have 'Dynamic Deacon' on the bench? What does he actually add to the match? How long is he going to be around? Repeating what a lot of people have said before but if you aren't going to start Lawes at least have him on the bench to blood him, apparently there is a World Cup in 18 months!

  • Comment number 42.

    Italy never looked capable of scoring, other than penalties, without their talismanic number 8 and too much credit has gone their way for a dire England performance.
    An attacking first 15 was picked alongside a joke bench which forecast the gameplan.
    If this is the "heads up Rugby" so talked about before the Welsh game then we need new heads. If however it is, as I suspect, a naive and flawed gameplan then we need new coaches.
    With obvious man for man advantages from 9 to 15 the ball should have been played in hand and our defense trusted.
    In the coming games we will see Italy routed by 35 points or more, probably more than once, and that will put this game into perspective!

  • Comment number 43.

    Incisive stuff Ben.

    I completely agree with your assessment of the reaction to a seemingly appalling display - in my mind it is an inherent cultural malaise. I did laugh at your comments on Borthwick's reliance on that dreadful cliche; not that one can expect pearls of educated wisdom from a man who has just slogged his guts out for 80 minutes, but it represents all that is wrong with British sport to me. It is an admirable quality to be able to take defeat or poor performance on the chin, ONLY if it results in a focusing of the mind and a renewed determination to improve. Will that happen? I doubt it.

    Of course we shouldn't remain downcast for too long over a substandard match, but the players should be fuming inside at having not performed to their best and be chomping at the bit to prove their ability and ambition. If I felt that they had tried their best to combine effort with invention to the utmost of their abilities and the score had still been 12-17, I would have been delighted. Sport is nothing if not an opportunity to drive oneself to greater things.

    One side comment I would like to make is about Sir Clive Woodward. After the magnificent achievement down under, he was hailed as a visionary coach, and quite rightly received recognition and plaudits. But one thing troubled me - in the dressing room he told the players that winning is everything. Sorry Clive, but it's not. Which teams or players, from any sport, do people remember with the most admiration? The Barbarians, the Brazilian 1970 football side, West Indies cricket 1980s/1990s, Seve Ballasteros. Why? Because they shared not only a determination to win, but also a touch of imagination, of flair, and a determination to better themselves. To go back to the '03 rugby World Cup, which individual matches do people remember? Wales' thrilling group contest against the All Blacks - even in what was effectively a dead rubber, both sides went for broke when they could have preserved their energies for the knockout stages. Samoa v England - classic underdog stuff. Almost any match with Fiji! Cynics might say attempting flair can sacrifice victory - why should the two approaches be separated? Ambition doesn't mean trying as many fancy moves and tricks as possible - it means trying your best. Did England try their best in Rome? Did they push themselves as much as they could? Physically, maybe. Mentally? No.

    I appreciate a blood and guts, backs against the wall performance more than anyone; as a former second row for Shrewsbury 3rd XV I was part of many a memorable match, but my favourite? A 0 - 3 victory away to our bitter rivals, with a 78th minute penalty deciding matters in our favour. Was it a beautiful passing game of rugby? Not exactly. But it was every bit as thrilling as JPR Williams or Caucaunibuca side-stepping and dancing their way to the tryline. The difference between that and England was that every player performed to the limits, in some cases beyond, of their abilities, and that's what counts.

    England have a potentially explosive backline, some of the brightest, most creative players in international rugby, and yet the insistence on kicking everything continues. It is not just frustrating, it is a disgrace. As you rightly pointed out, even Johnno himself recognised the devastating effect of running the ball, which makes it even more galling to witness a game like this weekend's.

    During the build up to the Wales game, I bet every England fan was ecstatic at the announced intention to blitz the visitors with pure attacking flair. The fact that it didn't materialise is almost to be expected now, but I will forever live in hope that one glorious day, it will blossom into reality.

  • Comment number 44.

    England are the most professional rugby union outfit in the Northern hemisphere, and proud of it. Unfortunately, rugby is probably the sport that shows most clearly that 'professional sport' is an oxymoron. Whatever happened to the joy?

  • Comment number 45.

    I will start off by saying that the tactics were fine, but executed poorly. Playing a kicking territory game only works if you kick it will and we didn't on the most part. Tait hit a really good one to prove it can be done. Justin Marshall, a current player, unlike Guscott, Davies and Moore, and who knows how the current rules operate, quite rightly pointed out that with such ambiguity at the breakdown, you don't want to be playing the majority of rugby in your own half, as if you get pinged, you concede 3 points or an attacking lineout close to your line. If you put the pressure on the opposition however and give them the ball just outside their 22, then they have to deal with the ambiguity of the laws.
    This might be perceived as negative, but Wilkinson missed several kicks at goal, some of them pretty easy for a kicker of his class, so with those going over, it would have created more of a platform to build on.

    After the England game, I watch Irish v Bath. Irish were very poor in the first half, played rugby in the wrong areas and were caught out, especially playing too flat and conceding an intercept try. If England had done this, we would have been demanding blood. Instead we played sensible, if at times inaccurate, rugby but still got the win and are still up for the grand slam.

  • Comment number 46.

    I was truly shocked by England's performance against Italy but was heartbroken for Italy as I thought they played out of their skins, but lacked a bit of experience. Make no mistake if England play like that against France, Ireland or Scotland they'll be crushed. When the backs were allowed to run the ball they looked dangerous at pace, yet they continued to aimlessly kick the ball back to the Italians. Wish they'd played like this last week!
    If France are beaten at some point then the championship could very well could go down to points difference and England may rue the missed opportunity of putting points against Italy.

    As for Borthwick he looked dazed and confused in the post-match interview, and frankly disrespectful of the interviewer. Every other captain when interviewed knows to give an honest opinion. It is all well and good trying to say they can "Take positives" but as captain he also needs to stamp his authority and make it known he is not happy with the teams performance that day.


  • Comment number 47.


  • Comment number 48.

    It won't come down to points as the one time France are beaten will be by England.

  • Comment number 49.

    I must say, as a frustrated England fan , I thought Italy played really well today and made few mistakes and showed some adventure too.I thought they were better than Wales the week before .
    My frustration comes from our inability to see where we can win the game and we seem to be over presriptive. After the 10th kick surely the copin must drop and we try and run one back at them.
    I also watched Irish v Bath match and Nick Abendanon showed how easy it is to run poor kicks back at a defence . He made some clean breaks and got snagged but most importantly the majority of the time he got back to his forwards to re-cycle the ball in a broken field and attack a disorganised defence.

  • Comment number 50.

    Phil T
    The Italians also missed a few kicks, had a harsh yellow where England had a let off (Moody taking a man out in the air). Your 'what if' line is pretty blinkered.

    The tactics were poor and badly executed. They played to Italy's strengths and meant the rugby England played was 'soul-crushing' as a spectacle.

    Wilkinson was seriously sub-standard and the Italian back-row was more impressive than ours.

    Italy are the team that can take the positives.

  • Comment number 51.

    Sport isn't all about Rolls Royce performances. Sometimes due to various factors you get stuck in the mud, especially away from home, and the opposition deserves credit for putting you there. Of course a world leading side would have been well clear of Italy but England we all know are not there yet so why be so surprised they struggled. At certain times with a little better execution they could have put away some more tries and on another day they would have. This England team seems to me similar to the WC2007 side, they will struggle a bit against anyone but manage to find a way, but also capable of being a nasty bitty thorn in most of the top sides and going close and possibly beating the top sides. As shown by their 1/4, semi and final performances. This England side hasn't been too good for a while now, we should be pleased they have won 2 out of 2 so far, and hope the WINS give them the confidence to kick on. People seem to think a great side and confidence and beautiful winning rugby against other committed and tricky international opponents will just suddenly happen. It's a long curve and I never for one felt the result against Wales mean they were there yet. I'd say get behind the boys, help them get some confidence, there are some good players there, and of course ask them to improve where they can. Let's see what happens against Ireland.

  • Comment number 52.

    stroymash, you seem a bit confused. You extol the beautiful game over all else, but the best match you've played in was a 0-3 slugfest?
    Which strangely enough you WON. do you havememorable dour defeats, too?

  • Comment number 53.

    England on Sunday were more interested in not losing than in winning. They were playing a team of a lower standard, but with some potent weapons of their own. Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong, but at least they didn't lose. They certainly haven't become a dreadful team in the last two weeks. I'm not worried about the platitudes trotted out by captain and coach: they know how precarious things are, and don't want to upset the applecart.

    Honestly, I have two much greater concerns that are not based on one poor game. These are concerns that have become greater and greater all through Martin Johnson's reign, both of which Ben hints at in this piece. First and most important, the team is overdrilled to an almost comical degree. The only way to get in is to accept the game plan and stick to it rigidly. Players who can change a game, but can't or won't stick to the script, are dropped: Jezza wouldn't even have made the bench with MJ as coach. This predictable play will never beat any of the SH giants, nor on current form will it beat France or Ireland.

    Second, do we really have the players to do the business? Personally, I think we do have the backs, if they are allowed to do their job properly. And we're England, so surely we can do the business in the pack? If we don't have the players, so be it. But it would be nice at least to find out.

  • Comment number 54.

    I have a memorable huge defeat by the way. I played for Aldermaston vs Henley in 1985. we lost 102-3 (with the old 4 for a try) and I got the 3 with a penalty from just inside our half. We only got into their half when we kicked off after every score.
    At the end the skipper moaned at me for mising a try-saving tackle in the last minute. (for the record I didn't miss it, I bounced off a HUGE number 8)
    I wonder if any of the Henley players remeber the game.

  • Comment number 55.

    I have to say that Martin Johnson is a legend one who as a player would never put up with or take positives from a performance as bad as England's so what I am struggling to understand is why is he accepting it as a manager???

  • Comment number 56.

    Spot on blog. I agree with everything you say. I wonder about the state of English rugby these days to produce such a dire performance. The Italians were awesome, even their Aussie import, who was a brilliant league player before shifting country. Gower managed his backs far better than Wilko. I am a massive Wilko fan and was there in the Telstra Stadium in Sydney when he slotted the drop goal but now I am beginning to wonder about whether he's past it. How many line breaks did Wilko make? Where's his mojo gone?

    You get bad days in the office from time to time but it shows some character that we won but ultimately I don't see any improvement from the Autumn tests. We've got some talented backs but they lack the spacial awareness or something as there were a few opportunities not taken that better teams -- France for instance -- will and do take.

    As for leadership on the pitch it isn't just Borthwick, but where are all the gobby players gone, who walked the walk, not only talked it? Dallagio, Dawson, Greenwood etc all make their presence felt. I didn't see that from a single English player. It's sad that they are all afraid of doing the right thing and taking a few risks now and again. The magic has gone from English rugby. Such a shame.

    Still, looking forward to beating the Irish at Twickers in 2 weeks!

  • Comment number 57.

    I see the Gerry Guscott fan club are at it again. The same idiots who praised England's win over Wales have now got their whinging caps back on, something they love to do more than anything else. These are the kind of people who believed England had a god-given right to go out and trounce Italy, just because it was Italy. Italy proved just how difficult they are in Dublin, when they didn't even turn up for the game. They gave the second-best performance of the weekend in Rome, so why do the Guscott-ites think England should have run in a cricket score against them? The fact of the matter is, England have played 2 and won 2, something neither Wales nor the current champions Ireland have done. If England manage a win over France, the form team of this tournament, no doubt all these whingers will be back on the band wagon again. The tournament ain't over yet - let's just wait and see what happens, before we get the knives out for Jonno and Borthwick, shall we?

  • Comment number 58.

    an appaling performance at best. what 'positives'? that they were rubbish?

    i'm only sorry that italy didn't get the win they deserved. england are one dimensional, and in situations like the one they faced yesterday, need to be able to employ tactics to counter those that the opposition employ - not try to counter with the same negative tactics! doh!

  • Comment number 59.

    "A win is a win" is only worth anything if the opposition is decent, i.e. any SH team or after the final of a competition. Any other time it is drivel...

  • Comment number 60.

    I don't think it was the greatest of performances, however I do think there were reasons to be cheerful. The backs looked dangerous whenever they had the ball and this scoreline flattered the Italians. Wilkinson missed a number of very easy kicks (for him) at goal that we would usually expect most international kickers to make easily. Without these kicks, naturally, the players got a little jumpy.

    That said, they really need to work on their game plan, why they continued to kick the ball long after everyone else realised that if they just kept the ball in hand, there would have been many more opportunities to score. It seems that whenever England play supposedly weaker opponents, they fail to put them away, however when they come against better opponents, seem to concentrate a little more.

    I agree with some of the other posters also that I wish an English Rugby Player would come out and tell it like it was as well. No 'we are really happy with performance' a lot of positives. Why not be honest for once.

  • Comment number 61.

    I've not read every comment up here, but just a few of my own:
    why do players and coaches talk in soundbites and platitudes? because when they don't they write headlines. England cricket recently. Colly talks for a while about Strauss taking a break, is positive about it and says one line in which he says it's a risk, 1 hour later the line on 5 live sport is: "Colly thinks Strauss is gambling with the captaincy."

    The coverage that we get is the coverage we demand, so why be surprised when payers and coaches talk blander than bland, we and the press make it that way. We all know when pressure comes on in from the media and amongst us, players and managers lose their places.

    I didn't think England were terrible. That was the best Italian performance in 15 years against us imho and this is a side that is building. 1st time that the fly half and inside centre played together, new centre pairing, second game for the back row, scrum half still bedding in. That doesn't produce beautiful flowing rugby, give it a year, nest years six nations should see England with power and style, if not, sack Jonno and his back room boys.
    How long did Sir woody need? How long did it take Irelands 'golden' back line to gel?

    A settled England team would have scored at least two of the line breaks we made and the game would have been transformed, as would this blog. To use a Jonno standard answer: 'It's just the little things..."

  • Comment number 62.


    Coming back to your original question: the opinion I am about to state is generally viewed as arrogant by those many supporters of other nations who love to hate England, but I genuinely believe England should never leave the top 3 of the rankings, should be nigh on impossible to beat at home, should beat Italy by 20 points on a bad day, and should remain in this position for the foreseeable future. This opinion is based on the reasons stated: largest player base, largest budget and a good-sized passionate support base.

    The fact it doesn't happen like this annoys me intensely, just like the opinions of those who seem happy with yesterday's outcome. There is a great deal wrong with English rugby at the moment and no one seems to be grabbing it by the scruff of the neck trying to drag it to the top of the elite game where it should be. An example is player development. Our junior teams (eg U20s) regularly beat their peers, play exciting rugby and every year the press touts young players' names who are going to shine in a full England shirt in the near future. Yet somehow, out of over 2 million registered rugby players in the entire country, our current best inside centre is a 30 year old Kiwi with dodgy shoulders, and our second best is Toby Flood!

    The long term vision of Woodward was lost and there seems to be no one has taken it on. Why doesn't Rob Andrew come our and make a bold statement of "we want to be the best in the world and we will not stop until we get there!". Instead we get Borthwick finding positives in 80 minutes of tosh.

    On a more immediate note, I think this group of players is capable of playing much better. Indeed they'll have to or they'll get spanked in their remaining 3 games. I still wait to be convinced that this management team can select the right 15 players and get them all playing well together week in, week out.

  • Comment number 63.

    Two things: given the already copious media scrutiny, why should we expect Steve Borthwick or any England player to admit to the world they played badly. They will know. I do wish people would get over this baying for public hand-wringing and self-flogging. The owe nobody and easy headline.

    Secondly, imagine England had used the game as nothing more than a practice session, and lost playing wonderful running rugby. They would still have been pilloried, only for a different set of reasons.

    Can someone please just take a long term view? Just once. Please.

  • Comment number 64.

    7 years ago Jonny Wilkinson kicked a drop goal to beat Australia to win the World Cup and yesterday Jonny Wilkinson kicking a drop goal to beat Italy - how far has the Engalnd rugby team come?? Please can we just have a world class coach (just look at what a world class coach has done for the England football team). They say at the 'top' level that greatness is achieved in the small details - that's why there's only a few great coaches, because they're the ones that get the small details right, unlike all of the England coaches since Woodward.

  • Comment number 65.

    BennyBlanco - I agree with your comments 100%. kingjohnmac criticises England fans for thinking they have a "god-given right to go out and trounce Italy", but it's not really a case of thinking England have a "god-given right", it's a case of thinking, as you say, that with our resources, player numbers and infrastructure, frankly, we should be never even be taken close by a side like Italy. It's a thorny area, because if you say "England should be a top-three side all the time", then you leave yourself open to accusations of arrogance. But I don't hear anyone calling New Zealand fans or South African fans arrogant for thinking their side should always be one of the best few teams in the world. Like you, I get extremely irritated with this acceptance of mediocroty in English sport, including in cricket and football. Yes, the English cricket team should be one of the best two or three teams at all times, it's a game, like rugby, played by very few countries. But if you say that, people tear your head off, as if they're quite happy that England haven't had a consistently great cricket team since the 1950s!

  • Comment number 66.

    I am not making excuses but the fact that key players we ill during the week and could not train can not have been good for the team.
    Perhaps grinding out a win was too much in the back of their mind because of it.
    I would like to see flood and Wilko interchange more often when things are going bad for one or the other. I think the try saved Wilko from being subsituted.
    Why cant the IRB insist on using one type of ball. Cricket suffers as well its crazy having different types of ball on the international stage me thinks whatever the sport.

  • Comment number 67.

    alkemp - "why should we expect Steve Borthwick or any England player to admit to the world they played badly.". I think you underestimate the amount invested in this England rugby team by many thousands of fans - financially and, more importantly, emotionally. You may or may not find it sad that people can get so caught up in what is essentially a game, but that's modern sport for you and as such the players have a duty to communicate with their supporters with honesty and frankness and sincerity, otherwise, as I say, it erodes confidence and people just feel like they're being taken for mugs. Also, frankly, it makes them look a little bit silly.

    "Secondly, imagine England had used the game as nothing more than a practice session, and lost playing wonderful running rugby". Well, that's the point surely, they wouldn't have...

  • Comment number 68.

    Give the team a year to settle and then sack him?
    He will then have had 3 years in the job to settle his team. That isn't good enough.

    That said, barring total disaster (not impossible) and three heavy drubbings in the next three games MJ will be the coach beyond the next world cup.

    Andrew is the man responsible for appointing him and his head will have to roll if MJ fails. Johnson will be given every possible chance to succeed.

  • Comment number 69.

    No, England were not awful. They were just robotic and uninspired. If we wanted to watch ping pong we would go and do so, we do not need to go to a rugby ground to do it. The kicking was aimless and largely ineffective. If Martin Johnson seriously thinks there was nothing wrong with the kicking then he needs to get out of rugby asap. It is nonsense to blame the lack of follow up. How the hell can you effectively follow up a 50 or 60 yard punt up the field which goes straight down the throat of the opposition? England players are far from being supermen! No team in the world could follow up such meaningless punts, let alone England, so why expect them to do so?

    It seems that the default position is to kick, regardless of field position. Perhaps if the default position was to run with the ball in hand it would make more sense? England actually looked good when they tried this approach. You get to keep possession and build pressure and all sorts of joys flow from that. You get nothing out of aimless kicking, so for God's sake England STOP DOING IT!!! It is ineffective, it is boring, and it makes you look totally clueless, totally lacking in the confidence to run with the ball, basically totally lacking in the skills necessary to compete at Test Match Rugby level. If England had played like that against New Zealand they would have been crucified. So why practice such a poorly though out gameplan at all? Why not practice a gameplan that might just get England somewhere against good teams as well as more limited ones like Italy?

    I don't know a fraction of what Martin Johnson must know about Rugby, but if I can see this why can't he? It really isn't rocket science Martin! It has to be mmuch better to attack the opposition, ball in hand than it is to try to defend against the opposition doing the same to you? What is that about attck being the best form of defence?

    By the way Jonny W had a shocking game, particularly with the boot,and maybe the time has come to accept his best days are done. His tactical kicking out of hand has always been very poor, and it has not magically improved over the years. It was perhaps a price worth paying for the metronomic accuracy with the boot on penalties and conversions. Now it just sets a really bad example for less exalted players who could easily get the impression that it is somehow acceptable to punt a kick straight down the throat of the opposition rather than find touch or a space in the corner, behind the opposition.

  • Comment number 70.

    Dirsy - I'll weigh in as a Saffer...

    We'd have been mighty unhappy with a performance like the one yesterday. It elevated winning ugly to a whole new plane.

    But I think it started, of all places, with Wilkinson's wayward place-kicking. With him scatter-gunning his kicks, the team's confidence was shaken, and they started to play very conservatively. Italy in turn never looked like breaching England's defences, and that justified the conservative approach, so the mindset fed on itself.

    Against Wales, who showed they were capable of some game-breaking play, England had to comes out and play with some ambition. Yesterday there was no such threat, and hence the turgid spectacle.

    I will however say one word in defence of Steve "lots of positives" Borthwick. He gets his head kicked in for good 80 minutes of uncompromising, physical rugby, and literally 2 minutes after the final whistle has to clear his mind for an interview. For him "taking positives" is his crutch, his nothing-phrase to get him through the banality of a pitchside chat. For a show-pony like Guscott to bristle at his answers is a tad harsh; if Borthwick is still today sticking to the same talking points, that would be another thing.

    Borthwick probably needs to learn some new pitchside platitudes, but lay off the workhorses at least until they've showered and changed.

  • Comment number 71.

    Me and my friends made the decision yesterday not to pay to go and see another England game until the coaches and players come back into the real world. Martin Johnson is either too arrogant to accept justified criticism or too obstinate in the face of criticism, either way every press conference he gives is farcical. How can any of them take any positives from a game in which their approach was negative and boring.

    To the game. The only positives for me were: Flutey back and showing signs of sharpness; Dan Cole held up well against a good Italian front row.

    However, the performance was dire and put a downer on an otherwise fantastic weekend in Rome. My observations:
    * Our coaching team is clueless and there is no cohesive game plan
    * Our players don't know how to play what is in front of them and have limited creative instinct
    * Johnson can't make intelligent tactical subs - he took off the front row that has played well and left on a half back pairing that was abysmal
    * Wilko, no matter how great he has been in the past, is not a world class 10 at the moment - poor tactical kicking, little game control, too deep, uninspiring
    * Care has lost his sharpness and takes too long to pass and lets the pack slow the ball down too often
    * Borthwick is not a leader and is not the best second row we have
    * Haskell is one-dimensional for England and loves blind alleys
    * Cueto may do everything well and be a safe pair of hands but he is too slow for an international wing
    * Armitage may have been out for a while but is way off the pace and lacks his previous incisive running.

    Enough is enough. A bunch of "old farts", as Will Carling would like to call them, are presiding over the extinction of hope for English rugby. Andrew should go and give someone like Geechan the job - about time we had vision and passion back in our national structure. Yes, I know it's never going to happen, so I will stop buying tickets until the RFU deserves my money and time.

    I want to be positive but I have no reason to be.

  • Comment number 72.

    Alkemp - long term view? Do you mean that 7 years after World Cup success is too short a time span to expect us to be successful again? You are welcome to low expectations but given the money and resources at the RFU, I will not accept their poor management and decision making that leads to dire, dull rugby. I like others am dismayed by the lack of ambition English sport shows - we seem to think just playing is enough and if we win, then jolly good chaps.

  • Comment number 73.

    Towards the end of the game Borthwick tried to get the ref to show Castro Giovanni a yellow card by making the same gesture we see footballers do every week.
    Brian Moore picked up on it straight away and layed into Borthwick. Personally i think he should get a match ban. A rugby ref would not be influenced so easily but that is not the point.
    That sort thing needs to be stamped out very quickly. I was shocked as a England/rugby fan to see it. I have never seen it before in rugby and i hope i never see it again!

  • Comment number 74.

    -BenDirs "I think you underestimate the amount invested in this England rugby team by many thousands of fans - financially and, more importantly, emotionally. You may or may not find it sad that people can get so caught up in what is essentially a game, but that's modern sport for you and as such the players have a duty to communicate with their supporters with honesty and frankness and sincerity, otherwise, as I say, it erodes confidence and people just feel like they're being taken for mugs. Also, frankly, it makes them look a little bit silly." - I am one of those fans. I have sat through the dismal performances and I invest an awful lot on all counts. Yes I was disappointed that the only match during this six nations that ought to have been comfortable to watch was not, but a win is a win. The place to make ammends is not in a 2 minute interview after the match, but in the next game.

    "Well, that's the point surely, they wouldn't have..." Maybe, maybe not, and in all likelihood, yes. Don't get me wrong there are still things missing, and areas that need work and Martin Johnson (surely the man who counts) alluded to that. There are some games though you can't afford to lose, and this was one of those.

  • Comment number 75.

    Wilkinson needs to go. He stands to deep and offers little in the way of attacking rugby. Granted in 2003 he was immense, however then he hand pillars all around him, the likes of Greenwood and Robinson, and he was playing behind the best pack in the world at the time. 7 years on hes not the man for the no.10 jersey anymore. Bringing in someone like SG, DC or TF will add a spark and some flair to the english backline. MJ needs to stop picking favourites and start picking players in form and who are on the rise. France showed at the weekend that when you play without fear or what may happen and play what's infront of you, you can rip teams apart.

  • Comment number 76.

    It seems to be the backs that are getting most of the stick for a lack of ambition but for most of the game they were playing against a very organized defence. These days, wide defences can cope quite easily with backs running at them and it is a better idea to kick slow ball than to run it. The worst thing today about England was their inability to win quick ball. They allowed Italy to keep their defence organised and so rarely gave the backs a chance. The breaks that England made were all opportunistic, the try came about as a result of a missed tackle rather than an overlap, and when they had made a break, the support to the next breakdown was woefully slow. Against a better side, we would have seen no breaks and England could have shipped 30 points.

  • Comment number 77.

    I seriously question whether anyone in the England Coaching set up can articulate what good rugby looks like. Can anyone, anywhere, shed any light on what England is trying to achieve when they take the field?Under Andrew and Johnson, the desire seems to be to recreate something from the past, while ignoring the fact that the game has moved on. Andrew is right about one thing - crowds will desert the game for as long as he continues with the development of the Old Guard - it isn't where the game is at, and the gap between North and South, except France maybe, is now probably wider than it was when the Professional Era began...

  • Comment number 78.

    England are being held back by their 2 icons of the 2003 World Cup win.
    Wilkinson just doesn't have it any more and Jonno the coach is not half the guy Jonno the player/captain was.

  • Comment number 79.

    I need advice.

    I have Borthwick, Haskell and Wilkinson in my Fantasy Rugby Team. Haskell was delicious on the first game, Wilkinson was disappointing against Italy (shame on me, I'm italian, I shouldn't have picked him), but can guarantee a few points. Borthwick? Should I drop him?


  • Comment number 80.

    How can we, the fans expect the England side to be full of confdence and attack at every opportunity if we are constantly saying that they have no ambition and are a rubbish team.

    Winning builds confidence. The big question of this article has been is a win all that matters. I believe it is. Now we need to build on the win, focus on the areas that need improving such as the surprisingly poor line out and the general game management. We spent the majority of te 2nd half in our own half. That is not how you win rugby games.

    Finally, Guscott seems to be living in the past. Defences today are so much ore well organised than they used to be. Ben says in this article that when you catch the ball from a kick and see one man in front of you, you should attack. No doubt that is true. However I doubt that Ben can find one example of when Armitage caught the ball and was confronted by only one defender. Italy pride themselves on their defence, it was well organised and opportunities like that just did not occur during the game. That does not mean that we should not attack from deep but it is not as easy as just picking out a 2 on 1.

  • Comment number 81.

    37. At 01:13am on 15 Feb 2010, vole wrote, regarding Borthwick trying to get Castro' sent off:

    Almost as unpleasant as Flannery. NO not his knee high hack at the french woing, but his feigning e had been punched, in one of his first games. Brian Moore was again the summariser, and paraphrasing, said something like, "get up me don't want to see that socerball stuff".

  • Comment number 82.

    As anyone who's ever played the game will know, every game of rugby is different. That's what makes it a great sport, unlike the more predictable soccer. England played very well against Wales and won, they played not-so-well against Italy and won. There is such a thing in rugy as the "rub-of-the-green" and unpredictable things happen in every game, regardless of player numbers, resources, infrastructure, etc. (Ben Dirs). The game against Ireland will be different again and anything can happen. Get off your soapboxes, you bunch of moaners and enjoy the great game for what it is - the most wonderful, unpredictable, blood-stirring, sport in the entire world - win or lose!

  • Comment number 83.

    So frustrating to watch. Kicking possession away time after time, particularly when they looked good with ball in hand. Scotland's last 10 min debacle started when they kicked possession away instead of rumbling around the forwards for as long as poss. Even more annoying is the England management don't seem to recognise the problem; maybe they do and just aren't telling us. The Ireland game will tell if I can sit through it.

  • Comment number 84.

    There we have it from the horses mouth.

    'I thought we kicked ok'

    So it is clear that England were under strict instructions to kick the ball away. Maybe Martin Johnson likes defending so much that he just wants the opposition to have the ball. But then again Italy kept kicking it back!

    Does no one want the ball!

    No one who knows the game will look at that and think yes, kicking the ball to the Italians is the way to beat them. We ran two or three back moves - simple moves, attack wide, throw back inside and on each occaison we travelled 60 yards.

    So if this worked, why keep kicking it away!!!!

    Then to defend this - no no no no no NO NO NO!


    That was an appalling display - mainly because we had the team, we had Foden in the squad - he would have devoured the Italians if given the chance.

    Sadly though Martin Johnson and his Coaching staff are not as advanced as some of our talented players.

    They are stifling England - They are holding England back - They are getting wrong.

  • Comment number 85.

    As a simple afterthought we NEVER saw a real bone crunching tackle from England - they lacked enthusiasm and did not even do a good job chasing the restarts. maybe they just expected Italy to let them win!!

  • Comment number 86.

    On the one hand, I never complain when one of my teams wins a match. In the short term, the result was good enough.

    On the other hand, the fact is that if we continue playing like that we will get blown out of the water for the rest of the tournament.

    Hope to see better against Ireland.

  • Comment number 87.

    36. At 01:08am on 15 Feb 2010, Mike Andrews wrote:

    Fasciniating analysis Mike, which might explain why I thought we looked V dangerous when ball in hand, BUT, we just don't believe in ourselves, that's why breaks are made with no support and we get turned over. Brian Moore and others riticising Haskell, (who is iritating and arrogant), for not managing to twist the right way and get tiurned over, when he is being tackled by three is just plain unfair.

  • Comment number 88.

    Winks, Please don't accept that the England side or management will be reading this blog and paying any attention to it! Their confidence will come from producing GOOD performances and not simply winning. They won't be sitting in the changing room after that game going "well I feel so much more confident now we've won two out of two"! They will be racking their brains as to why they failed to impose any pressure on Italy when they were reduced to 14. They will be tearing their hair out when they see how often when we were in positions to put pressure on Italy that we gave the ball away, threw the ball "not straight" into our lineouts, got penalised in our own set piece scrums and failed to listen to the ref shouting "use it or lose it" in the mauls before blowing up and giving the ball back to the Italians.

    There were some dreadful mistakes made at key moments in the match when the pressure was on Italy and not England. Confidence comes from doing the simple things right, not from just winning. Simply turning pressure into points methodically, and not rushing, getting excited and stumbling.

  • Comment number 89.

    'As anyone who's ever played the game will know, every game of rugby is different. That's what makes it a great sport, unlike the more predictable soccer.'

    I like rugby but football is hardly predictable?! It is possible in football for a team ranked divisions lower to beat a premiership side in the FA Cup, in union a team from say national division one would be destroyed in the pack and not have the physicality or fitness to match the Premierhsip side.

    It is also possible for any number of results to occur during a football world cup.

    In international rugby union it is virtually impossible for a side outside of the top ten to defeat one of the better sides.

  • Comment number 90.

    Yesterday's match was a bit déjà vu. How many times have England played well in a match, lifted hopes and then put in a crap performance in the next one?

    I've never seen a team go flakey like England's either. They are playing well and then suddenly they fall apart and play like a team of under 15's on their first ever practise.

    I'm also of the opinion that Brian Ashton should never have been shoved out as he was. His hands should have been untied and he ought to have been able to train the team HE wanted.

    Now we are back in the mire and I'm not sure how we can extract ourselves. Cueto seems to be the only player who can think on his feet.

  • Comment number 91.

    herbi J

    Did you even read what i wrote? I was explaining that beautiful flowing rugby is an example of players playing to the best of their abilities and ambitions. England clearly didn't manage that - given Johnson's recognition of missed opportunities, the players we had on disposal, and the decent conditions, it is a travesty that they didn't create more chances. The game i mentioned with a 0-3 scoreline was also an example of a team playing to the best of our abilities in the circumstances - I find it every bit as satisfying to be a part of both types of games, and as a spectator it would difficult not to admire the efforts and ambitions in both types of matches - you try playing free-flowing rugby on a muddy pitch! As it happens we did try and run it, but we also had to survive some heavy pressure:it wasn't 0-3 for lack of ambition. It's a very American attitude not to appreciate a low scoring game.

  • Comment number 92.

    I agree with your assesment of the English performance.

    Johnno's reputation for honesty has been severely dented by his reaction to the game; clearly the backs were under instruction to kick rather than run, and just as clearly there was a strategy - albeit a mistaken one - behind this. Why then did Johnno simply not articulate the strategy? If that involved saying that we armchair analysts were being too simplistic and missing some points, I'm sure we'd all have taken it in good part, and tried to learn from the dialogue. If he'd taken it on the chin by admitting that the strategy was flawed, again no problem.

    But the "crisis, what crisis?" response is all too resonant of the stock RFU establishment response to every stage of our slide since November 2003. We expect better from Johnno, if not Andrew and the rest.

    England may raise their game for Ireland and the rest of the 6N, and I hope with every fibre of my being that they do, but let's at least have an open and honest debate about how we're doing, and let's leave being on-message with the much-despised politicians.

  • Comment number 93.

    England were mediocre on Sunday but you cant blame them for their tactics. Every team is engaging in aerial ping pong, France kicked much more then Ireland, NZ do the same! It is the interpretation of the rules not the coaches to blame for this tactic!

    The refeerees interpretation of the breakdown makes it a lottery. On Sunday the attacking team was concistently penalised for holding on even when the defenders were all of their feet on the wrong side of the ruck. Players are penalised for rucking even when it is not dangerous, Dan Cole was penalised for trying to clear out because he came in from the side, even though England were attacking and he came from behind the back foot!

    Englands problem is not the tactics - they did make enough line breaks to bury Italy - its poor execution and a lack of tempo. Too many kicks were not chased hard enough so that we didnt pressure the catcher and you cant run the ball if you have a line of defenders and all of your team mates in front of you. Are we fit enough? Do they need to spend less time building up their posing muscles and more time building up their cardio vascular fitness?

    But their biggest problems is confidence and silly media criticism isnt going to help that.

  • Comment number 94.

    During my playing days, rugby football was a players game. A game played for the sole enjoyment of the players themselves. Anyone who cared to watch could do so but the whole point of the game definitely was not to entertain.

    With the coming of professionalism comes the win at all costs mentality. Sure, it is wonderful to win in an entertaining manner but winning ugly earns you just a big a win bonus.

    Personally, I would prefer a second split in the rugby codex. Lets call it Rugby Classic. And revert to the laws as they were c. 1990 i.e. before professionalism ruined the perfectly good game.

  • Comment number 95.

    England lack leadership - both in an overall captain and a couple of players who can marshal the troops and make a difference.

    Italy were there to be destroyed. Better leadership would have been able to identify what needed to be done and change the game accordingly.

    The rigid adherence to a 'game plan' (if there was one), and lack of imagination and flexibility showed England as a second rate side.

    Going by Borthwick's post-game interview he is obviously delusional!

  • Comment number 96.

    I thought the Italians were really annoying. Firstly they wouldn't let us have the ball when we had more men than them. Secondly they matched us in all areas and showed no respect.

  • Comment number 97.

    Has anyone ever seen an All Black Team, a Wallaby Team or a Springbok team ever play like that? Moreover could you imagine any of their respective captains or coaches being anything more than suicidal if they did let alone spouting implausible platitudes!

  • Comment number 98.

    yeh iblametheref you are right, why did't I think of that! But tell me, dont you just blame the ref?

  • Comment number 99.

    I have suffered many turgid England performances and been willing (although often not happy) to just take the win and move on, with anticipation of an improved performance at the next outing.

    But yesterday I lost my faith and my patience and I found myself despising the England team for the way the squander the opportunity to be better.

    This was NOT a case of a great Italy team stopping England from playing. England did not have to play ugly in order to play their opponents. Italy were their usual physical self but when England tried to play, they showed that they had greater skill and class. No, England did not have to win ugly in order to win this match - they could have won pretty if they had tried. Instead, they lost their way and stopped bothering to play rugby in a way which clearly could have put the game beyond doubt early on, given the fans something to cheer, given themselves the confidence they need, and put doubt in the minds of their next opponents.

    When they ran they were good (Monye's tunnel vision aside) - certainly better than they have been for a long time. But they ignored that fact and kicked aimlessly. I even cheered when, about halfway through the second half, Tait did a crossfield kick that actually had some purpose and found space behind the Italian line. When that is a stand-out moment, you know that something is wrong.

    They sleepwalked through the match, ignoring their potential and almost ended up losing as a result. Johnson lacked leadership with is substitutions. The team lacked leadership on the field. Guscott has a point that the players are probably afraid to do anything beyond a set game plan - even when their instincts should tell them otherwise.

    It was the first time ever that I wished that I was not an England fan...

  • Comment number 100.

    Just one observation about the original article, which says that England struggle to fulfil our potential. Well, hang on a minute - there have been 6 World Cups and we have been in 3 finals and won it once. That rather feels to me that we are delivering on our potential. I certainly haven't noticed any other northern hemisphere teams get anywhere near that record.


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