Autumn Internationals Round Up: England

29 11 2010

After a depressing end to what had previously been an encouraging Autumn International series we are not sure exactly what conclusions to draw. Whilst some questions have been resolved there are many that are still outstanding; amongst them – are England truly a side capable of challenging for the world cup next year? What does their defeat to South Africa mean? Is two out of four really good enough?  In an attempt to answer some of these questions we will split the arguments into positives and negatives.

Positives:

In our eyes the most obvious one, despite his relatively poor game against South Africa, is the young Leicester man, Ben Youngs. Watching him play it has been easy to forget just how youthful and inexperienced he still is. This time last year he had only just started playing regularly for the midlands club following injury to Harry Ellis but has already established himself as surely a fixture in the side for the next five to ten years. In fact he was so integral to England’s attack that it was noticeable how, with huge South African pressure at the breakdown and at scrum time, England as a whole lost their shape.

Flood too had a good series and his half back partnership with Youngs is now an effective one. Never flashy or extravagant, Flood has done enough to justify his continuing selection as first choice fly half.

Outside these two there are further success stories. Hape has been increasingly creative and was one of the few bright spots against the Springboks. Cueto has had a quite exceptional Autumn despite not having scored for close on twenty tests now. Inventive, sharp and continually asking questions of oppositions defence he was as key to England’s revival as anyone else. On the other wing Ashton was electric in attack and solid in defence and is part of the younger brigade of players who look like being the core of the team for some time to come.

Foden, at full back, was on balance good although he had one or two hairy moments, particularly against South Africa. It is a hugely refreshing thing to have a running full back although we would rather he keeps the ball in two hands a bit longer – by tucking it under his arm he immediately shows the opposition he is going himself rather than potentially releasing any supporting runners. A minor thing however and he deserves a pat on the back for his efforts.

Up front there were more positives with the entire pack doing well. Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole, Tom Palmer, Andrew Sheridan and Tom Croft were all brilliant at points but most importantly performed consistently well. This is an excellent pack and one which will only grow in stature as time goes by. Easter had his moments in the last two games although turned over too much for our liking against the Kiwi’s and the Aussies. He remains the best we have in that position. Moody was consistent if not outstanding but led the team well and so remains comfortable first choice seven.

Perhaps more encouraging than any individual performances was the nature of the way England played the game. This of course reached an apogee against the Australians in what was the finest England performance for quite some time (certainly seven years or so) and then tailed off gradually. The fact that England were trying to play with pace and width and on several occasions actually succeeded demonstrates that, at the very least, Martin Johnson is moving them in the right direction.

Negatives

Pleasingly less negatives than positives – something that we haven’t been able to say when reviewing a series for what seems like eons – but there are still question marks remaining. Most glaringly is the outside centre conundrum. Tindall was reasonable and provides a solid and experienced presence, yet he is hardly a game breaker as someone like Conrad Smith is for the All Blacks. His replacement for the Samoa game, Matt Banahan, didn’t do enough to suggest he is ‘the man’ moving forward although he wasn’t without his own plus points. A class 13 is priority now for Johnson.

A second worry would be the way that England were blown off the park against the Springboks on Saturday. In mitigation a couple of England’s key players went off injured – yet it looked like the sheer physicality of the South African’s simply overpowered them and at points there was an element of panic and a forced nature about the English play.

To tell the truth it was likely to be a case of inexperience and a young side not knowing how to go back to basics (plus the Boks were awesome at the breakdown) and so hopefully this will improve over time.

Finally, what we will say is that England still need to be more efficient and take their chances better. It was certainly improved this November yet one feels that had it been the All Blacks in a few of their try scoring opportunities that went begging – the score lines would look all the more impressive.

Conclusion

A decent if not outstanding Autumn but still short on actual results. England were beaten by a better side on the day against the Boks and by a genuinely brilliant side in the All Blacks but will still feel that it was a November which could have gone better. This being testament to raised standards and correspondingly raised expectations, it is actually no bad thing and for that alone, Martin Johnson would probably be pleased on balance.

To answer the question posed in the opening paragraph regarding the world cup we would suggest that at this stage England are probably not world cup challengers. Yet, if they put together a good 6 Nations, they could take the final small steps that will put them right up there and who is to say after their game against Australia this isn’t possible?

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Sweet Chariot: Outstanding England

14 11 2010

England 35-18 Australia

Well that was encouraging!

You may have noticed that the Compulsive Hooker has had its fair share of issues with England rugby since the blog’s inception. We have castigated Martin Johnson, Steve Borthwick and, more recently, Nick Easter and Mike Tindall mercilessly – the years of ‘rebuilding’ and hurt took their toll you see. However, faced with a result that is as impressive on paper as it was in the performance; we feel that it is time to set aside the negativity and once more take pride in England rugby.

Southern hemisphere supporters (and possibly anyone non-English) will undoubtedly laugh at the headlines and lead paragraphs in almost all English media reports on the game this morning. Without fail there is some mention of the World Cup and how England have sounded ‘a World Cup warning’. Whilst this is still probably jumping the gun until the levels of consistency have been raised to close to 2003 levels, it is not entirely an unfounded statement. The rest of the world are of course very familiar with the English media’s propensity to get over excited (just look at the football team!) but in many ways you can’t blame them – it was truly an awesome performance and one that was genuinely exciting.

It is rare to see a northern hemisphere side dominate a Tri Nations team. Even in the glory days of English rugby back in 2001-3 when England didn’t lose to any of these sides for 3 years, the games were not often as one sided as yesterday. Using memory alone, the only examples of this we could come up with were when England put 50 points on South Africa in 2002, and possibly the test in Sydney just prior to the World Cup when England ran out winners 25-17 in an entirely dominant display. There may well have been more – our memory is not perfect – but certainly with wins rare over the past 7 years, the manner of it was entirely unexpected.

In our pre-match predictions we had suggested that England had a reasonable chance and would secure a win by one score. With England playing some of the finest rugby we have seen from men in shirts bearing the red rose (we quite liked the ‘anthracite’ shirts ourselves…), the result of the game was never really in doubt from the moment Ashton crossed for his first try and England went 10-0 up.

The catalyst, as always these days, in good things from England was the 20 year old Ben Youngs. Deservedly Man of the Match, he did not take an incorrect decision all game and excelled in that old rugby adage of  ‘playing what’s in front of him’. His vision and step to put first Lawes and then Ashton away down the right was audacious and, quite simply, breathtaking.

Ashton, after a quiet game against the All Blacks, was excellent and showed outstanding pace to beat Drew Mitchell to the line on his 80 yard dash for his second try. Whilst he was undoubtedly brilliant, it was the other winger in the form of Mark Cueto who appeared to have been reborn and caught our eye. Over the past couple of years Cueto has been a solid, intelligent but unexciting presence on the wing – rarely providing the go forward of yesteryear. At Twickenham yesterday he was back to his inventive and dangerous best; on several occasions breaking through holes in the Aussie defence and generally being very difficult to put down.

In truth this was a great team performance and it would be wrong to pick out individuals too much but others that caught the eye included Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes, Ben Foden and Shontayne Hape. Even the victim of many a rant on this website, Nick Easter, provided a good link and go forward when he had the ball. Our doubts about him remain – he is too slow and still seems to knock on too much – but until Haskell or someone similar puts their hand up, he’s fine. Tindall, too, had a good game after a particularly average showing against the AB’s and despite looking ponderous on occasions provides an experienced head. Similarly to Easter, it would be nice to have a dynamic young 13 coming through but until this happens  Johnson should continue selecting him.

Australia will be bitterly disappointed but they were simply not allowed to play. In the backs the outstanding Kurtley Beale played what amounted to a lone hand whilst only Pocock was in evidence in the forwards. As England know only too well, playing with a pack going backwards is almost impossible. All this despite the much vaunted weakness of the Australian game, the front row, not being in evidence at all! They are obviously not a bad team overnight and remain a highly dangerous outfit – albeit one that lacks the necessary consistency.

Finally, a word on the architect of England’s win, Martin Johnson. It is fair to say that we have been fairly damning about Jonno’s regime over the past year. For the first 2 years in charge his lack of experience, coupled with a strange fascination for Steve Borthwick and an aversion to youth, ensured that we were sceptical his credentials. Too often one good performance was followed by three dire ones – but with evidence having been mounting since the France game in March that, just perhaps, it was different this time, we are going to gracefully withdraw from this position. It is clear that now whatever balance Johnson was seeking has been achieved. Most importantly he knows who his first XV is – something that for a long time was simply not clear – and with the timely emergence of Youngs, Foden, Ashton and Lawes there is that added bonus of having some potentially (in Youngs case, already) world class players to pick from.

From our point of view at the Compulsive Hooker, we would also like to say what a pleasure it is to be feeling positive about England rugby once more. To be able to write something without a burning knot of frustration in your stomach is a novel experience and one that we hope England have managed to banish for quite sometime. So well done England, well done Martin Johnson and bring on the Springboks!





England vs New Zealand Preview

4 11 2010

England come into this game as huge underdogs. Nothing unusual there then. The All Blacks, despite last weekend’s unexpected and narrow defeat to the Australians, come into these Autumn tests with an unbeaten Tri Nations under their belt and a brand of fast paced and highly skillful rugby that should wow all those that have the opportunity to see them play.

England, whose last game was the single point win over Australia, have picked much the same side as that match and look set to, attempt at any rate, to stifle New Zealand rather than play with any great ambition themselves. Mike Ford, England’s much maligned defence coach, has accused the recent Tri Nations matches  of not being ‘proper test rugby’, a claim that quite frankly beggars belief whilst  only serving to wind up the AB’s. Instead Ford has promised a return to ‘old fashioned rugby’.

This is a prospect that has us groaning to be quite honest as it seems to signify a game plan of little width and interminable drives around the fringes. At least with Ben Youngs at 9 we can expect quick service and a certain amount of desire to spread the ball on occasions.

Playing the AB’s is always difficult – particularly with a backlash likely following their loss to the Aussies – and you can understand why England would not want to employ the game plan they used against Australia in June – i.e. throw it around and get it wide. With the running abilities of the AB’s this could backfire dramatically.

The key as ever is a balance. Disrupt McCaw and friends at the source and once you have your hands on the ball play a mixed game – keep it tight before spreading once you have sucked players in. Sadly we suspect this balanced approach is unlikely to happen as with Johnson’s England it is usually polar opposites – slow and undynamic tight play or caution to the wind wide and wild rugby.

What England need to do is pay attention to the dynamism and speed with which the AB’s, and indeed all Tri Nations teams, hit the breakdown areas.  As with most sports, speed creates problems and if a tight disrupting style is their game plan on Saturday – this is crucial to their chances of success.

Finally from England’s perspective, it is encouraging to see Johnson sticking with the Foden and Ashtons of this world. These players, along with Youngs, are genuine game breakers and should not be scared to run the ball back at the AB’s. As Australia showed last week the New Zealand defence is far from infallible.

As far as the Kiwi’s are concerned, providing they shore up these aforementioned problems in defence this should be, whilst not quite a walk in the park, certainly only a moderate jog. They have the class, they have the game breakers, they have the speed and, perhaps most importantly, they have their aura. A young England side (Tindall and pals excepted) without having any experience of beating the men in black might find this ultimately is the deciding factor. Unwavering belief after all counts for a lot.

With the New Zealand team not named yet there is still doubt about Sonny Bill Williams involvement. For our part at the Compulsive Hooker we would be very pleased to see him as part of the team – he is after all a seriously exciting prospect.

Prediction: New Zealand 34-12 England

Look Out For: An excess of penalties conceded by England around the breakdown as they try to disrupt AB service. Muliaina to be back to his devastating best as he returns poorly directed punts from England’s back line.

 





Borthwick Dropped – Hallelujah!

2 07 2010

Finally! Martin Johnson has seen the light. Steve Borthwick, erstwhile England captain and Johnson favourite, has been dropped from the 32 man ‘Elite Squad’. Albeit this is only as far as the Saxons squad where in all likelihood he will sit until someone gets injured (which in the modern age they are sure to do) and then return to thwart our joy at this news. Perhaps due to the emergence of Attwood and Lawes, Johnson has reluctantly acknowledged what we all know to be the truth and dropped him. We won’t be entirely happy until he has been dropped altogether from the Saxons squad as well, yet it is a good start!

Typical of Johnson’s selections in the past it is not totally free of controversy with Olly Barkley, the leading man in Baths mid season renaissance, being left out of both the Elite and the Saxons squad. To say that Barkley is not in the top 64 players in the country seems extraordinary but there we have it. Matthew Tait is also another that misses out on selection for the senior squad but, unlike Barkley, is selected for the Saxons. This is a further selection call that we feel Johnson has right as Tait was spectacularly ineffective during the recent tour of the Antipodes, in our opinion and despite this semi mythical outside break people mention when Tait is talked about, he is too lightweight, too weak in the tackle and simply not dangerous enough to warrant selection ahead of Tindall for one.

One player who did make the cut however is Matt Banahan which goes to show that Johnson has yet to get it totally right. Banahan is a lumbering and slow force on the international field and in our opinion always looks like a lock out of place. Yes, he is big, but he is not quick off the mark or particularly dynamic and to our mind these are much more important attributes for an international winger to have. Monye, whose place Banahan has taken, is relegated to the Saxons squad which is justified after some pretty ordinary performances for England over the past 9 months. It is quite some fall for Monye who only this time last year was lining up on the wing for the Lions.

Nevertheless, the non selection of Barkley and the picking of Banahan excepted, we are much happier with this pick and especially considering players such as Lawes and Youngs appear to have nailed down starting spots, perhaps there is hope after all. We reserve the right to continue our old refrain that Johnson appears to be lacking some tactical nous, as seen in every game under his tenure bar perhaps two or three, but at least the personnel is improving.





England Win!

20 06 2010

Unfortunately we were unable to watch any of the rugby yesterday due to other commitments, and typically, just when we were thinking perhaps it doesn’t matter considering the state of northern hemisphere rugby, England win and Scotland complete a series triumph in Argentina. True Italy and Wales lost convincingly to the Springboks and New Zealand respectively, yet finally we have some positives.

We won’t comment on the games for obvious reasons but reading the reports it seems that the two young guns, Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs were brilliant, and that Croft finally played something like he did for the Lions last year. We have been advocating the talents of these three right from the birth of this website last December and so it is pleasing to see that they are finally being given their head and, above all, justifying their selections in some style.

Here at the Compulsive Hooker we have been waiting for an opportunity to write something positive about the English rugby team for so long – and it is galling that the one game we miss is the game where suddenly the shackles were broken! Whilst we are still not convinced Martin Johnson and his team are the right men for the job; at least they have finally given England fans something positive to dwell on.

What is imperative now is that England win well against the New Zealand Maori on Wednesday and then, coming into the home Autumn tests, prove that this is not a fluke. Anyone getting too excited should remember there is a precedence for a one off good performance under the current regime, with England demolishing France in the 2009 6 Nations and then reverting to type.  However a win is a win, and a win over southern hemisphere opposition away from home is to be treasured in these lean times.

Can anyone reading this who did watch the game possibly comment in a little more detail with regard to the performance of the young England players in the team?





Summer Internationals Preview: Rugby

10 06 2010

Once again it is that time of year when the northern hemisphere national teams head down south with a mixture of trepidation and what usually turn out to be false hopes. There are some intriguing battles over the next few weeks but, unfortunately, we suspect that by the end of these fixtures the balance on the win ledger will be firmly in favour of the southern teams.

This gap in standards and abilities, which has only ever been closed on brief occasions in the past, is as wide as it ever has been, no matter that Australia for one are still rebuilding, or that South Africa and New Zealand are choosing to experiment slightly. For most of the NH teams the same problems are still present; a lack of fluidity and adaptability in England’s case; a lack of a front row in Irelands; simply no depth in Scotland’s case meaning an innate lack of quality and with France, well, you never know if they’re interested in playing until they start. Wales are alone out of the home nations in not having a game this weekend having kicked off their Summer with a home game against the Springboks last weekend, in which they came thrillingly close, but couldn’t quite close it out.

England vs Australia (Perth)

Out of all the teams playing southern hemisphere opposition this weekend England have as good a chance as any. Australia are firstly a side of whom they are not scared (which silly as it may seem can be a factor in these tours) and are also a side going through their own rebuilding process. That they have managed to keep sneaking the odd win against the Boks and the All Blacks during this period whilst also winning most of their games against other opposition suggests that their coach is doing a better job than Johnson in his rebuilding process.

England come into this game with a couple of selections creating interest in the Aussie press, not least the selection of Toby Flood on the bench ahead of Jonny Wilkinson. A surprise perhaps to them but to any England supporters this news is hardly worth raising an eyebrow to. Flood, having come in at the tail end of the 6 Nations in March, is the man in possession and quite honestly (and this is tough to say as JW is one of our favourites here) currently the better game manager. Jonny will be back, of that we have no doubt, but he is not the 2003 super hero deluxe model any more.

The other interesting selection is Shontayne Hape, the ex All Black rugby league player, who comes in at 12 for the injured Riki Flutey. One Kiwi for another then. Here at the Compulsive Hooker this selection of foreign born players for England is a regular conundrum with which we wrestle; it now being common in many sports but particularly cricket and rugby. Truth be told it is nothing new and England are far from being alone in doing it, yet we do feel that a line should be drawn when that player has already represented a different country at senior level in another sport. Therefore, whilst we have nothing against Hape, we hope that Ollie Barkley has his own opportunity to state his case whilst still on tour. This seems unlikely to happen though as he appears to be several rungs down in the pecking order.

We are glad to see Tom Croft back in the team having come in for Joe Worsley. Croft is a serious talent and you feel would thrive if he was playing for any other team than England, enjoying as he does the wide open spaces and a quick game, and we hope Johnson can accommodate him properly.

We are also pleased to see Ben Youngs on the bench although we would much rather he was starting. We believe that he will end up being first choice England scrum half for the next five years once he fights his way into the team. He will however have to get past Martin Johnson’s strange love affair with Danny Care.

Turning on the TV last night we watched England play Ireland in the Junior World Championships currently being played in Argentina and what a joy it was. These players are still young enough that they are simply playing ‘heads-up’ rugby. Literally playing what they see in front of them rather than getting bogged down in the slowly worked and usually ineffective set piece moves and game plans so beloved of the England senior team. If senior England can show the level of invention and simply the willingness to play rugby as the junior side did, well – even a loss would be easier to stomach.

It’s time for your team to start delivering Johno – don’t let us down now.

Prediction: Australia 35-13 England

A quick look at the other two big games:

New Zealand vs Ireland

This is likely to be a difficult tour for Ireland as not only are they battling history, never having beaten the All Blacks home or away, but are also battling their own front row. This is of course overstating it a little bit, John Hayes would never do anything to harm Ireland’s cause on purpose, yet his very selection is worrying. For the last year or more the Irish pack has gone backwards regularly and spectacularly at scrum time as age finally tells on Hayes. On the other side of the scrum is Cian Healy, dynamic in the loose but still learning at scrum time and regularly out scrummaged. It is testament to Ireland’s other players and their fighting qualities that during this period they have been so successful, but we feel against the might of the AB’s only pain will follow.

Otherwise the Irish side is really as good as it’s possible to be, injuries permitting. Mick O’Driscoll is in for O’Connell and will surely do a solid job and Trimble in for Earls. O’Gara is picked ahead of Sexton whose place kicking at international level is suspect, even if the rest of his game is not, and against the All Blacks you need assurance that, when there are points on offer, they are taken.

Prediction: All Blacks 32-19 Ireland

South Africa vs France

Similarly to England, France have a reasonable chance of a win as South Africa have named an interesting team for Saturdays game. The Bok’s showed their World Champion qualities last week against Wales, doing just enough to win, yet the challenge will be that much tougher against France this week.

France have come off a 6 Nations where they demonstrated exactly how powerful an outfit they are, winning in style and well. If they can continue this form then there is no reason why they cannot beat South Africa at home. It really depends which French team turns up as even in this professional age you can never guarantee a performance from them. (Witness their win in the Autumn against South Africa, only to then get trounced by New Zealand the following week). We actually think they might win this series and it would be impossible to understate the value of this leading into world cup year in 2011.

Prediction: South Africa 21 – 29 France

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Leicester Do It Again & England vs Barbarians

30 05 2010

In a brilliant  and pulsating Guinness Premiership final last night, Leicester got their hands firmly back on the trophy for the sixth time since the advent of professionalism in the union game. It is also the third time in the past four years demonstrating the level of domination they have enjoyed in recent times.

Rarely, however, can Leicester have played with such verve as they did yesterday though and it was a marked change from their early season performances in which they (and Saracens incidentally) were criticised for dull and try-less rugby. Saracens also played excellently and were in many ways unfortunate to lose. Indeed one feels that had Saracens come up against any other English side and played the way they did; they would have probably won by somewhere in the region of 20 points.

Finals are often dull affairs with the really exciting rugby usually being played in the semi finals. This phenomenon usually occurs because there is simply too much to lose by playing the higher risk but more exciting rugby needed to put on a spectacle for the fans. Yet, in yesterdays game, the execution and generally incredibly high skill levels came together to ensure that this was not the case.

With the scheduling of this game meaning it started immediately after the Super 14 final; the pessimist in us, here at the Compulsive Hooker, worried that it would compare unfavourably. You know what you are going to get with the Super 14; lots of running, high levels of attacking skill, the odd missed tackle but generally rugby at an almost international level of intensity. With English rugby generally being considered to be in the doldrums at the moment, last nights game was a welcome tonic with all the same facets of play present. With players such as Toby Flood, likely to be key components of England’s summer tour to Australia excelling yesterday, perhaps all is not lost from a national point of view.

With several notable performances from both sides including both scrum halves, the aforementioned Flood, Geordan Murphy and Andy Saull, we were left wondering how Martin Johnson has not included Alex Goode in his elite squad to tour Australia. Goode, recently voted in at full-back for the premiership team of the season, was a constant threat and always totally secure. If we have so many high quality 15’s in the English game that Johnson can afford to ignore him in a squad of over 40 players – English rugby is lucky indeed!

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England vs Barbarians

This excellent weekend of rugby continues today when England play the Barbarians in what should be a good game. Whether it can live up to the above match in levels of intensity is a different question; but there are several players on both sides with something to prove. For the Barbarians; Paul Sackey should be relishing his chance against David Strettle having been the forgotten man of recent English rugby history.

For England; Shontayne Hape makes his debut at 12 alongside Mike Tindall in what should be a bruising partnership. The Compulsive Hooker has written about what we think of this ex-kiwi national rugby league player’s presence in the side before (suffice to say we don’t agree with his inclusion) and so we hope he has a shocker and is substituted for the deserving Olly Barkley early on. Barkley has had an excellent season upon his return from injury for Bath and we feel should be given a shot at the 12 position.

The dreaded Charlie Hodgson lines up at 10 and we are positive that, with the pressure of a full international off, he will probably play very well. We just hope that this does not cloud Martin Johnson’s vision of who should be lining up at 10 in the upcoming months…








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