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?





England vs Samoa Preview

18 11 2010

Following on from last weekends fine exhibition of attacking, running rugby against the number two rated side in the world, comes what, in many ways, should be the easiest match of the Autumn for Martin Johnson’s England. With consistency and continued evidence of progress needed, England have resisted the lure of wholesale changes against what promises to be a tough Samoa side- instead opting for a handful of experiments that will give England added reason to be pleased should they come off.

At prop David Wilson comes in for Cole as Johnson gives the versatile prop a chance to start. Cole need not worry though – he has done more than enough to be first choice for some time to come. Fourie replaces Moody at 7 to win his second cap; another instance of Johnson wanting to have a look at what the back up is like. We are pleased to see James Haskell return as he is a man with undoubted talent although barring one or two occasions in this years 6 Nations he has failed to live up to the fans expectations. Croft drops to the bench for a rest although like the other players making way – he can be assured of a return against South Africa.

The interesting selection is that of Matt Banahan at 13 instead of Mike Tindall. Banahan is a player who, during his 5 caps gained over the past year, has not impressed upon us his international credentials. It is possible that our perception of him was a direct result of being associated with the two awful and dirge like affairs against Argentina last year as well as a couple of the less good 6 Nations matches and so, in the interests of being fair, we are looking forward to seeing him play – hopefully he can disprove this notion.

Apparently a quick player, although there has been little evidence in an England shirt so far, we would like to see this experiment work as good and experienced player as the current incumbent, Tindall, is – he can hardly be described these days as a dynamic force in the mold of Conrad Smith or even Max Evans.

Nick Easter has been given the captaincy for this match in a move that will please his many supporters. With few, if any, other players putting their hands up to fill the number eight role and with Easter being a solid, if limited, player it is perhaps no surprise to see Johnson continuing although we would have liked to see Haskell given an opportunity at the back of the scrum. Can anyone tell us where Dan Ward-Smith is? We’re assuming he’s injured as otherwise he might have got a game…

For Samoa this promises to be a difficult match now that England appear to be playing with skill, pace and intelligence. They have had a difficult tour so far having lost to Connaught and then had to play in horrific and alien conditions in Dublin. That they did well against Ireland, eventually only losing by 10 points, should ensure that England do not take them lightly.

With South Africa to come next week England will simply be glad to get through this match without injury – something that a match against the hard tackling and running South Sea islanders seems rarely to be without.

Prediction: England 38-13 Samoa





England vs Australia Preview

11 11 2010

We are in the unusual situation of having, whilst not an over powering level of expectation, certainly a larger dose of it than in any time in recent years. For the first time in several years we are consciously entertaining the possibility of an England win without recoiling in turmoil at the possibility that, simply by thinking it could happen, England will have even less chance.

We like to think of ourselves as a reasoning, thinking and logical collective at the Compulsive Hooker – Dingo excepted perhaps – and this sporting superstition does not sit well with us although, try as we might, it is impossible to ignore.

The reasons why England could win are numerous after a game which, despite the loss to the All Blacks (and in spite of our extremely negative write up perhaps), there were a number of positives to come out of it. The scrummaging was obviously exceptional and it was a joy to behold the old and the new in the forms of Sheridan and Cole packing down together; Australia are surely worried at what these two behemoths may do to their fragile pack.

Youngs continued to show promise and for the periods when England were going forward was most impressive. Flood, Hape, Ashton and the impressive Foden have another opportunity to showcase their undoubted talent against a backline who love playing rugby as much as the All Blacks. The difference being this week is that at England should have the edge up front making it easier for Flood to get everyone going forward.

Equally, Australia would be pretty disgusted with themselves should they lose this game. Yes they’re playing at Twickenham; yes they havent’t got much of a scrum – but quite honestly, they’re the holders of the Bledisloe Cup and have played virtually without a scrum for years so this won’t bother them!

Where they are strong, as always, is in their back row and all across the back line. Indeed in Pocock, Genia, Cooper and James O’Connor they have some of the foremost talents in their respective positions. England scrum half, Ben Youngs, expects the Aussie backline to be more dangerous than the All Blacks – praise indeed considering who plays for the men in black – although to be fair, this might be all part of a weird love in that is occurring between the two sides at the moment.

Summing up; the Australians remain favourites although, unlike last weekend’s air of sheer inevitability, there is a real feeling that England might have just enough to get over the line.

Prediction: England 24-22 Australia

Look out for: Lots of play acting around the scrum as Australia attempt to show that England are scrumming illegally. Pocock to be the first to almost every breakdown. Tindall to be shown up on the outside/inside as his lack of pace tells. Ashton, Foden and Youngs to provide England’s attacking threat. England to just do enough.





6 Nations Weekend Preview

11 02 2010

With the pick of the 6 Nations matches at the weekend being France versus Ireland, Declan Kidney has surprised a few people by picking Ronan O’Gara at fly half again despite Jonny Sexton’s return from injury. Had Sexton been fit last week the likelihood is he would have started, however it appears that ROG’s performance in that match has reaffirmed Kidney’s faith in him. Sexton is likely to make a substantial second half appearance and it will be interesting to see how Ireland’s game changes on his introduction. There is little doubt he offers more going forward than ROG and it will be interesting to see how much faith is placed in him if the game is tight.

With the only other change being Earls for Trimble on the left wing, our prediction is an Ireland win by 5 to 10 points and for O’Driscoll to remind Bastereaud that he is still a little wet behind the ears.

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England versus Italy promises to be a very stodgy affair if England don’t break loose. Flutey returns for Flood and Dan Cole, who the Compulsive Hooker has been pushing for some months now, will make his first start. The scrum was definitely more assured last week upon Wilson’s substitution for Cole and we can look forward to a similar all action game to which he regularly plays for Leicester from the young 22 year old.

If Wilkinson cannot show more spark inside the creative Flutey we fear that his reputation will be further tarnished. As mentioned previously the hope is that with an inside centre more in the Greenwood mould, Wilkinson will be forced to play more on the gain line. The Compulsive Hooker will remain faithful in our declaration of JW as the ‘greatest living Englishman’ but we feel for the rest of the world to acknowledge him once more he needs to lift his game.

Italy have made some changes to their side although sad to say these are likely to be fairly inconsequential to the result. More limited than they have been in the past, it is time to play with a game plan that is less about spoiling the oppositions game and more about playing positive rugby themselves. Our prediction is for an England win along the lines of 35-8.

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Wales host Scotland in the third weekend game and Gatland has shown a softer side than expected with his decision to include Alun Wyn-Jones. After Jones’ trip on Hartley last weekend, Gatland had been apoplectic with rage and the player must have feared for his life let alone his place. (Anyone who has seen the latest Lions documentary ‘Living with the Pride’ will appreciate what we mean with Gatland!) Wales have the chance to show what they can do against a limited Scot side whose ambitions, like Italy’s, often seem to stretch no further than spoiling the oppositions ball.

Chris Paterson is winning his 100th cap and this is an achievement that should certainly be applauded in the modern day rugby world, where durability and the ability to remain injury free is something only a few can claim. In our view he has been a much underrated player and is probably the best kicker in world rugby off the ground. We can’t find the stat exactly but we think he hasn’t missed a kick in the 6 Nations since 2007. Is this correct can anyone help us?

Our prediction is for Wales to have too much for the Scots and to win by 15 points.





England 30-17 Wales: Post Match Analysis

7 02 2010

What follows is a collaboration between our first guest contributor Mr. Follett and Bradders:

England started their 6 Nations campaign with a good result yesterday, beating Wales by the comfortable margin of 13 points. Whilst the margin of victory was large, it was ultimately flattering to England and Wales will have been disappointed that, with the scores at 20-17, they were unable to press for the win.

Starting in the forwards, there was both good and bad on show. Haskell fully deserved his man of the match award, putting in a performance to silence his persistent doubters. Nick Easter had a solid match and provided a game breaking moment with his charge into the Welsh 22, enabling Care to pick up and score near the posts. Moody, whilst not at his omnipresent best, as he was in the autumn internationals, was industrious and helped ensure England did not go backwards in the loose. With the Welsh lineout operating astoundingly poorly for much of the game, Borthwick and Shaw were able to take advantage, stealing Welsh throw in ball on more than one occasion. The bad, however, came predictably in the form of England’s scrum, which on more than one occasion creaked alarmingly. Whilst never being in full retreat, England escaped lightly as on at least two occasions Wilson was not penalized for pulling the scrum down. Cole’s emergence in the second half immediately appeared to shore things up and he should start next weekend’s game against Italy.

Danny Care had one of his better games for England, scoring an excellent try he illustrated why Johnson had picked him. The same problems of speed of service remain however and he must share some of the blame for the lack of quick ball at the breakdown. This lack of regular quick ball ensured that attacking opportunities for England’s backs were limited. Compounded by Wilkinson’s tendency to stand a little deep and Flood’s lack of pace in the 12 channel suggests that a Wilkinson – Flood combination is probably not the answer. With Flutey expected to recover in time for next week’s game we hope that he will inject some much needed urgency and creativity. Wilkinson’s place kicking could not be faulted however and his kicking out of hand was vastly improved on the dire offerings of the autumn. This is not to say England kicked well as a whole, with there still being far too many aimless and misdirected kicks. With the back three looking threatening on the rare occasions they had the ball and clearly being one of the strengths of this England team, it is imperative that they get the ball in attacking situations more often.

Overall the win was all important and should provide confidence to this beleaguered England team. Undoubtedly the victory margin was flattering and ball in hand the Welsh looked infinitely more threatening although England did display some of the required clinical ability with Haskell’s second try.

Wales on the other hand, whilst looking more of and attacking threat ball in hand, were unfortunately guilty of too many disciplinary faults conceding several penalties. Alun Wyn-Jones was the main offender however with his calculated and crazy decision to trip Dylan Hartley meaning that he spent 10 minutes in the sin bin either side of half time. In this period Wales conceded 17 points and from that point on the game was as good as lost. Gatland has been astonishingly but justifiably forthright in his post match comments, strongly criticizing Wyn-Jones’ and practically blaming him for the loss.

Despite this, Hook scored a coruscating try, eluding 4 men to score under the posts and give Wales a sniff of victory. Unfortunately their adventure undid them in the end, with Jones throwing the pass that Armitage intercepted to put Flood, then Tait and then Haskell in for the last try.

All is not lost for Wales in this campaign, although the feeling remains that with the amount of talent and game breakers they have in their side, they should be doing a great deal better. Somehow Gatland needs a way to unleash Jamie Roberts, as since his return from the Lions tour he has been a strangely subdued player. Only once last night did he break the line as Wales pressed in the final 10 minutes. Lee Byrne also had a game to forget and it is possible that the will he, won’t he nature of his participation in the game may have affected him adversely.

With Scotland next weekend, Wales will have to pick up their performance substantially to ensure that they have what it takes to beat a defence minded Scottish side.





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.






Six Nations Thoughts – England

26 01 2010

When beginning this piece, we found ourselves unsure of how to begin. There seemed to be so many frustrations and a veritable litany of complaints about the current England team and coaching staff, that it is almost too overwhelming for an England fan to write about. With this in mind we are going to start with the positives and see how it goes from there….

When compared to the Autumn internationals, where England were missing almost an entire first team due to injury, things have improved dramatically. The extraordinary lack of props in November has partially been resolved due to players coming back from injury and the emergence of one or two others. Dan Cole of Leicester has been in sparkling form in what is virtually his debut season and is surely a man for the future. The only slight cloud that remains here is the continuing absence of Andrew Sheridan. Matt Mullan of Worcester has also been promoted from the Saxons squad which seems to indicate that Johnson is firmly looking to the future.

Nick Easter’s return to the squad provides a welcome sober head to the side. Easter has never been the quickest or most dynamic player on his feet but he provides a much needed solidity and can be relied upon to make the hard yards. Unfortunately Tom Croft’s injury has deprived Johnson of his services until the second half of the tournament although it is doubtful that he would have started. So dynamic for the Lions, Crofts open field game has never been suited to an England under Johnson who are intent on keeping it tight and rarely threaten the wide open spaces. It is instructive to think that the only time Johnson’s England has broken the shackles (against France last year) Croft was at the forefront of all that was good.

Here at the Compulsive Hooker we have covered the second row conundrum and Johnson’s predilection for Borthwick before so we won’t go into details (but you can find our rant here). Suffice to say that we would like to see a Shaw – Lawes combination which would combine the best of the old and the new, conveniently forgetting the mediocrity in the middle. With the announcement last night that Johnson is to retain Borthwick as captain this will clearly not happen although you have to hope that Borthwick isn’t immune from a 60th minute substitution just because he is skipper.

In the backs Flutey’s return means an increased ability in attack once more. The Compulsive Hooker’s admiration for Wilkinson is well documented and we hope that the return of Flutey will help him stand flatter. The real key to this of course is making sure that England are playing on the front foot and not trying to create from behind a retreating pack. With Armitage surely returning at 15 and the promise of Ashton on the wings, suddenly the back line appear to be more of a threat. Scrum half will be interesting and we would like to see Ben Youngs of Leicester given a run out at some point. Foden, eternally the unlucky man in Johnson’s squads, appears to be the one to miss out again although perhaps his continued retention will eventually get him some game time. A more instinctive attacking English talent there probably isn’t so a chance is overdue.

As mentioned yesterday England do appear to suffer when compared with the talents on offer in Ireland and France although undoubtedly there is a strong core running through the side. With the resources available to England both on and off the pitch there is no excuse for them not to be challenging for honours year in year out. Something has gone wrong though over the last 6 or 7 years and for our money, Johnson is not the man for the job. To justify his retention as Team Manager, England need to finish at least 2nd in our eyes. Anything less and England will have gone backward.

Prediction: 3rd. The fixture list is kind to England with two easy (in theory anyway) away games to Scotland and Italy and only one tricky one (France). England though will probably also lose to Ireland so a middling campaign only with two losses is our prediction.








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