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!





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…..





Attacking England and Other Rules

2 02 2010

Encouraging article for all England fans written by Mick Cleary in the Telegraph today, in which he suggests that Martin Johnson is going to commit England fully to ‘attack’ mode. According to Cleary the England back line will read Care, Wilkinson, Monye, Flutey, Tait, Cueto and Armitage. With the possible exception of Care’s selection at scrum half, the Compulsive Hooker will be extremely pleased if this comes to pass.

Care is the faster player and this is perhaps why he is being leaned towards. In our opinion the crucial factor is speed of pass and willingness to move the ball quickly from the bottom of the ruck which is why we would rather see Hodgson given his head. Care has a habit of taking a couple of steps and then passing which means that the 10 has a crucial split second less than he might have done with a quicker pass.

The article sums up more or less exactly what we think so click here to have a look.

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SANZAR have given direction to all referees officiating in the Super 14 this year that they must sort out the tackle area and prevent defending players from slowing the ball down. In their own words they are trying to bring ‘clarity’ to an area which over the past two or three years has been anything but clear. Having looked through their guidelines there is nothing new, although they are attempting to take the advantage away from the tackler by telling the ref’s to be quick to penalise the defending player.

It strikes us as odd though that this guideline has come from the localised governing board rather than the IRB. As we enter into a 6 Nations likely to be beset with a plethora of kicks and lack of running rugby it seems that up north, we may also benefit from similar guidelines. If the IRB could take the lead on refereeing standards and guidelines worldwide it would help everyone including, and most importantly, the spectators.

These attempts to straighten out the mess created by some very wishy washy laws, particularly regarding the tackle area, are inevitably only papering over the cracks and probably won’t be too effective. The attempt is to be applauded though and shows up the IRB’s decision last year to maintain the status quo and effectively deny there is a problem.

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As nervous English supporters we are pleased to see Lee Byrne out of the Wales game at Twickenham this weekend. Byrne is a hugely dynamic and threatening player and without him Wales lose some of their cutting edge which is fantastic news for aforesaid Englishmen. We do not believe though that his actions really justify his ban as you have to wonder what the official in charge of the substitutions was doing. A fine perhaps is more suitable as to miss two 6 Nations games is a steep penalty to pay.





Hopes and Expectations

14 01 2010

Captain Terrible

Johnson clearly does not read the Compulsive Hooker. If he was a reader of this blog, which no one I know calls ‘the most influential voice in rugby today’, surely Steve Borthwick’s name would have been missing in yesterdays Elite Squad. Surely? Or perhaps not. Every single rugby pundit the length and breadth of England’s green and pleasant land, has been calling for Borthwick’s head more or less immediately after he was named captain of the England rugby team in February 2008 and this hasn’t yet affected Johnson’s thinking.  Although he wasn’t originally Johnson’s choice, the error has been compounded by his resolute defence and refusal to consider alternatives since Johnson took over for the tour to New Zealand in 2008. The only caveat in Johnson naming Borthwick is that he has not been confirmed as captain. Yet.

Before readers of this site begin to think there is a personal vendetta against the man let us give you some reasons why he should be banished to the lower divisions of club rugby.

  1. Borthwick has gone backwards in aggregate yardage in almost every match he has played since taking over as England Captain bar the New Zealand game at the tail end of 2009. This anomaly can be explained by a freak occurrence when Borthwick found himself with the ball in space and charged forward 20 yards before being brought to ground.
  2. His speciality is supposed to be in the line out where apparently he is a clever reader of the opponents throws and outwits them on England’s. The problem with this is that the England line out has rarely been secure itself in the last 2 years (although the hookers must take part of the blame) which belies the latter half of the reasoning. On opponents throws, by our reckoning, Borthwick has probably only won half a dozen against the head in 2 years of being captain with the majority coming in that New Zealand game.
  3. By selecting Borthwick, Johnson creates a larger problem in the second row. Like other positions (e.g. centre, scrum and fly half) on the field the second row is a partnership. The Bok partnership of Botha and Matfield being prime example. Botha is the hard man flying into rucks and mauls and generally getting involved in the nitty-gritty whereas Matfield is the brains in the line out and often plays almost as an extra flanker. Borthwick sadly is neither the brains or the engine room which limits options alongside him. Probably the most dynamic young lock in the country is Courtney Lawes of Northampton but due to Borthwick’s limitations he is unlikely to play.

Johnson appears to have a blind spot when selecting locks if you consider the continued selection of Louis Deacon and omission of Nick Kennedy. A partnership of Deacon and Borthwick was proved to be the least dynamic partnership in decades during the Autumn internationals yet they both retain their places. This inability to select well in this position is doubly strange given Johnson’s status as one of the greatest locks of all time.

Prop is another area in which England are struggling at the moment and unfortunately the selections of Tim Payne and Julian White are equally mystifying. Anyone who watched Dan Cole’s destruction of Tim Payne in the Leicester Wasps game a week ago (see report here) can see that Payne’s better days have long gone. Amusingly, Tim Payne’s wikipedia article sums it up perfectly. The full page can be found here.

Timothy Adam N. Payne (born 29 April 1979 in Swindon) is a rugby union footballer who plays at prop for Wasps.r.

Unusually for an international prop, he cannot scrummage very well at all, but remains in the England squad because he’s been in it before when they were desperate.

Shontayne Hape.jpg

England's 3rd Kiwi

The most notable selection in the squad is Shontayne Hape from Bath. Whilst in all honesty Hape is a name that is unfamiliar to the Compulsive Hooker, the very fact he is eligible for England seems wrong. This is a man who has played 14 times for the New Zealand Rugby League team and this as recently as 2006 against Great Britain. Hape qualifies through 6 years residency in the UK but due to his representation of New Zealand in a national sport within the last 6 years this rule needs to be looked at. This is a situation familiar to all England cricket and rugby fans and needs to be reassessed before it gets out of control.

On a positive note Johnson finally seems willing to let Matthew Tait have a run at outside centre and the call up of Chris Ashton provides legitimate competition for the Monye, Banahan, Cueto hegemony.

As you may have gathered we are not overly positive about England’s chances in the 6 Nations as the frustrations with Johnson still remain. As a player we loved him, as a coach we doubt him.

Any comments?





Good news for Johnno

23 12 2009

Good news was also forthcoming last weekend (although I have only just noticed it!) that Delon Armitage, England’s star full-back from 2008 has made his full come back after injury. Apparently he played 13 minutes at the end of London Irish’s game and scored the final try to boot.

Team England is in an extraordinary mess at the moment and news that gradually their injured players are returning is welcome. With Armitage slotted in at 15, Monye and Cueto on the wings the back 3 suddenly has a much more solid look about it. When Flutey returns and with Flood offering further options at 10, I am suddenly more optimistic about the look of the team for the 6 Nations.

Wouldn’t mind a new coach however – I’ll always love Johnno for what he achieved in 2003 but as a coach? I’d rather have someone with a track record. My vote currently would go to Jim Mallinder of the Saints as his teams play the attacking brand or rugby I like.








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