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!





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?





Some Questions

14 03 2010

It is hard to write this piece without it descending into a diatribe of epic proportions against England and particularly the England management. Nevertheless, we will try and provide a few opinions as objectively as possible regarding the game we have just watched.

Ending in a draw, which to our eyes seemed a fair result considering the sheer inadequacies present on both sides, it underlined the shortcomings mentioned ad nauseam in previous articles on this site. To a large degree we are willing to exempt the players from blame; not totally you understand as there is far too much experience within the team and poor execution in the game to do so, but on the whole we feel they are handicapped by poor selection and an atrocious game plan from the England management.

Before we go any further, and to attempt to stem the flow of negativity straining to unleash itself from our fingertips, let us have a look at Scotland. On the whole, Andy Robinson, will be relatively pleased with a draw although this still leaves Scotland likely wooden spoon winners. Yet this was a game that Scotland could, and possibly should have won. There were definite positives in several key areas; the 6,7,8 combo continues to impress with Beattie in particular vying with Jamie Heaslip for the title of the best number 8 in the home nations, and out wide Scotland again showed intent and variation. Unfortunately the final pass went astray too often for them to be truly effective but importantly the desire was there.

Despite results not going their way, Scotland have improved over these past 4 games. They remain hamstrung by a small player base which means they are always going to be a smaller nation, yet under Andy Robinson they have showed more structure and played more rugby. We hope that the Scottish board sticks with him as with a bit more luck and certainly a little more nous the results in this tournament could have been quite different. It was interesting to see the Scottish full back punching the ball into touch once Toby Flood’s attempted drop goal has been charged down, willing this time to settle for the draw. Lessons have clearly been learnt from the Wales game.

And so, back to England.

There are two overriding emotions present here at the Compulsive Hooker so let us deal with them one at a time. Firstly frustration. Here is a list of things in England’s favour which in theory should mean England should not be in this current malaise.

  • England are blessed with one of the largest player bases of any senior test match rugby nation.
  • Even despite the recent economic downturn, the financial status of the RFU and most English clubs has remained healthy.
  • The facilities available throughout these clubs and at headquarters remain some of the best in the world.
  • The wealth of the clubs has been able to ensure that the majority of the star players stay in England and are not tempted overseas for more lucrative rewards creating a player drain. The recent strength of the Euro and the wage caps imposed in the UK, has made this a greater challenge than before, yet France is hardly far away….
  • The ability to attract foreign talent for the financial reasons above. This of course can be argued both ways, but really and truly the standard of the Guiness Premiership would not be half as good as it is without many of these players playing. (There are some exceptions to this rule but not many).

Yet despite all these compelling reasons (and we are positive there are many more) why England should, from a support point of view be one of the best teams in the world, yet come to naught when you look at results.

The second emotion is puzzlement. To explain this we have composed a list of questions below which go some way to elucidating this feeling. (In no particular order….)

  • Where has Riki Flutey disappeared to? We know he’s a good player (3rd test of the Lions tour, France and Wales matches in last years 6 Nations are all examples of his abilities), yet in the last 3 games he has been extraordinarily innocuous and totally invisible. Did he touch the ball before the 57th minute today? We missed it if so….
  • Steve Borthwick? Really?
  • Louis Deacon? And Steve Borthwick? Together?
  • Will Steve Borthwick ever fail to use the adjective ‘fantastic’ in relation to another dreary England performance? We haven’t seen the post match interviews with him but we’d be willing to bet he said the word somewhere….
  • Delon Armitage? Which dastardly character has stolen his mojo?
  • Why the aversion to exciting and dynamic young players? (Dan Coles excepted). Ben Foden, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs? It’s as if they have been put on the bench as a token gesture to appease the angry press and near to rioting fans but nothing more.
  • Why does Jonny stand so deep? Is it really the game plan ‘so lay off him’, as Johnson told the media earlier in the tournament, or was he simply protecting his talisman?
  • What does Rob Andrew do for his exorbitant wages? (This is a very interesting point and one which we will tackle at some point in the near future).
  • Does Rob Andrew possess big enough ‘cahones’ to sack the man he appointed to be England’s saviour?
  • Will Martin Johnson admit defeat and resign, therefore saving him the trouble?
  • Who can sack Rob Andrew? Why won’t whoever it is that can do so?
  • Where has Mark Cueto’s pace gone?
  • Where can we apply to join the England back room team? It’s well paid, amazing job security with almost no performance related targets to hit and on top of that masses of great England gear…..
  • Above all, England have good players. We know this. But why, oh why, can they not play rugby together?!?!
  • Etc
  • Etc

There are many, many more questions where these came from. There are also answers to many of them, but somehow the men to whom all these frustrations and performance issues come back to, appear to be supremely oblivious to the either the problems, solutions or both.

Please Johnno! We loved you as a player and as a fearsome man of iron; but please don’t ruin your reputation or tarnish our still (but only just) pure adoration for you. It’s time to get out whilst you still can…..





Martin Johnson Loses His Marbles

10 03 2010

The England team has been announced for Saturdays 6 Nations match against Scotland. With what is now disturbing regularity, Johnson has surprised most people by making 2 changes which, in our view, are verging on the ludicrous.

Firstly Lewis Moody has been replaced by Joe Worsley at 7, which quite frankly is a bizarre decision. We all know what Worsley offers, lots of tackling and hard work but also silly penalties and very little ball in hand. Moody, however, has been one of the few England players to have shone over the recent past and despite a quiet game against Ireland, it seems a strange decision. Worsley is a very fine defensive player and as such represents a negative pick.

Louis Deacon has come in for Simon Shaw forming what must be the most extraordinarily dull lock pairing we have ever seen. Both Deacon and Borthwick are players of much the same type, solid, dependable, slow and as far from the description ‘dynamic’ as it is possible to get. The only sliver of light showing here, comes in the form of Courtney Lawes, who has been moved up to the bench. Lawes shouldn’t hold his breath however as the last time he sat on the bench he wasn’t trusted with much actual game time.

Now and again in life you come across people who are contrary. We all know the sort, people who will disagree with even the most sensible argument simply for the sake of being different and are often stubborn and irritating individuals. It could be argued that Johnson could be one of these types given his selection policies. Every single critic, both English and not, including such coaching luminaries as Sir Ian McGeechan, have identified England’s failings and all broadly agree, although it must be said not everyone is on the same wavelength with regard to the cause of these issues. We won’t list them for the umpteenth time here, yet it appears the only man who doesn’t understand what is wrong, and therefore can hardly be expected to fix it, is Johnson himself. By ridding England of Moody, ignoring Foden and bringing in Louis Deacon to partner Borthwick (a case in point himself) he is reinforcing all that has been wrong up until this point and quite frankly, we don’t understand it.

The one change we, and many better informed commentators, feel should have been made has been ignored. Despite being clearly the only England back to have injected any pace and intent into the attacking game against Ireland, Foden has been ignored once again. In some ways we appreciate Johnson’s loyalty to Armitage, yet he has been such a stuttering presence it seems an opportunity missed to not give Foden his first start.

A second option which we feel would increase England’s potency, is by throwing Ben Youngs, Leicester’s flying scrum half, into the mix. Despite many media experts giving Danny Care qualified praise for his performances in this years competition, we at the Compulsive Hooker believe him to be a flawed player and actually the cause of some of England’s problems.He is quick and has the ability to break upfield, but his decision making is frequently poor and his passing slow due to the extra steps he takes each time he passes. Giving Youngs his head would have been a bold and brave move by Johnson, although it is hardly surprising he stopped short and only included the young 9 on the bench.

So there you have it. In our eyes, incontrovertible proof that Johnson is not the man for the  England job. We have said it before and we’ll say it again no doubt, but living legend and world cup winner though he is, coach, selector, manager, whatever you want to call him – he is not.

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It is getting to the point where we at the Compulsive Hooker, are considering not watching the game on Saturday. Up until now we would never have even contemplated such a boycott, yet the levels of frustration incurred by watching the drivel dished out by this current England side are so high that we would probably be better off focusing on the hockey for example. At least they can play.

Through chatting to many people over the past few weeks, we know that we are far from alone in this. We are from a situation where Twickenham will have spare tickets for a game, but England need to be careful. The fantastic work in promoting and widening the profile of this brilliant game done by England in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is being undone. At this rate, no 12 year old child is going to dream of being the next Steve Borthwick or Delon Armitage.

It is of course very easy for us to comment on England from the safety of our couches and not being responsible in any way. Yet something MUST be done and it must be done soon.

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Oh and a prediction for the match itself….. England to snatch a low scoring and pretty dire affair. 15-9 perhaps? It would not come as a surprise to us though if that scoreline is reversed. So far on this website we have been wrong probably 60% of the time. We would dearly love to be forced to write a piece on how amazingly short sighted we have been so far and of course if they can play like that, Johnson is clearly the man for the job… Somehow we doubt we’ll need to though!





England Team Announced

2 02 2010

England vs Wales:

England
D Armitage (London Irish); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Sale Sharks), R Flutey (Brive), U Monye (Harlequins); J Wilkinson (Toulon), D Care (Harlequins); T Payne (Wasps), D Hartley (Northampton), D Wilson (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Saracens, capt), J Haskell (Stade Francais), L Moody (Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins).

Replacements: S Thompson (Brive), D Cole (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), S Armitage (London Irish), P Hodgson (London Irish), T Flood (Leicester), B Foden (Northampton).

More or less as expected although the Compulsive Hooker is mystified by the inclusion of Tim Payne at loose head. His struggles for Wasps are well documented this season and we can’t help but feel he will be eaten alive by the Welsh front row, which contains three current British and Irish Lions. Barring our preference of a swap of the scrum halves picked, the only other quibble we have is the inclusion of Louis Deacon on the bench. Even more plodding and pedestrian than Borthwick, we would have loved to see Courtney Lawes given a shot. We are pleased to see Dan Cole there as he looks like one for the future.

The Welsh side is yet to be announced as it is unclear yet whether the appeal against Byrne’s pending ban will be successful or not. They are apparently training with two different combinations, one with Hook at 15 or the other with Byrne there and Hook at 12.









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