Johnson Out – Please Let Rob Andrew Follow Him…

17 11 2011

So England’s dire performance in the World Cup last month has taken its toll and the first casualty amongst the coaches has gone. Martin Johnson, England legend and dignified as always stepped down from his position as England Manager citing the fact that England’s world cup results have made it impossible for him to continue.

We, as England fans, feel mixed emotions about this. True the Compulsive Hooker had been calling for him to be moved aside almost ever since the inception of this blog (here and here to give you two examples). We had always felt that he wasn’t the right man for the job and as such feel this is the right thing to have done albeit belatedly, but, we do still feel  for Johnson.

The honesty and straight talking nature of the man himself – his frustration palpable to see when asked about the latest yellow card, innumerable penalties that lost a game or the inability of his team to combine into a decent rugby unit – combined with the apparently inept RFU and the betrayal of trust in him by such established players as Mike Tindall means that we do have some sympathy.

Obviously his wasn’t an easy job made harder by some of the idiots around him. However, the fact remains that his appointment was a flawed one – more subject to a popular vote from the media it seemed than any logical reasoning. We have always felt that the head coach/manager – call him what you will – should above all be a brilliant selector. Someone who can spot talent, nurture it and develop it. This was something that Clive Woodward was brilliant at, often plucking players from near obscurity or others who were unfashionable and turning them into world beaters. Johnson’s stubbornness over certain players – the names of Borthwick, Hape and Tindall spring to mind – is well known and undoubtedly held England back at various points over the last three years.

Yet, having said all that, every so often Martin Johnson’s England team clicked and produced excellent displays of rugby (remember the 34-10 demolition of France in 2009, the 35-18 win over Australia a year later just after winning down under too) and each time there was the hope that England had turned a corner but sadly this never happened. Jonno has gone, England are once more in a state of flux and the England fans lot is no better than at any point over the last 8 years.

For us though, much of the blame of the last 6 years should rest fairly and squarely on Rob Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew has presided over the hiring and firing of three coaches (although to be fair he didn’t hire Andy Robinson) and each time he has handled it ineptly. The firing of Brian Ashton in particular was a disgrace. We are informed by the people over at wikipedia that his nickname is ‘squeaky’ which seems about right – currently he is ‘standing firm’ and we would not be surprised to find him still in control in 3 years time. Nothing sticks to him.

For England moving forward we believe the there should be a clear out from top to bottom of the coaching staff – and unfortunately for Andrew that includes him, the man who employs those coaching staff. He has to take responsibility for the last 6 years. He came into the role as the Elite Perfomance Director and we would suggest that some of England’s performances (a country with more resources and players than almost every other) have been less than elite. Quite apart from the man management issues, it’s time for him to go.

There is however no reason to be all doom and gloom as there are some very bright young players in the England set up; Tom Wood, Ashton, Lawes, Dan Cole to name but a few and with the U20 sides being so strong too there is no reason to think that come 2015, England won’t have a reasonable chance. Out with the old, Tindall, Hape, Moody etc and in with the new.

We do realise of course it is very easy to sit here and criticise but the honest truth is that England should be doing better and we as England fans are not happy to see such mediocrity game in, game out.

Thoughts?





England vs France At Twickenham: A Rugby Feast

26 02 2011

Here we go then for what will probably be the deciding round of Six Nations rugby. At the half way stage of the tournament and, with only England or France looking capable of winning it, the biggest game on the cards tonight it is likely to be a cracker.

France have reinforced their team with the big man Sebastian Chabal in an attempt to fight the perceived English physicality whereas England have resisted the temptation to make any changes as players come back from injury – something that has to be a good thing. We can’t help but think that in this case Marc Lievremont has got it wrong and Martin Johnson has got it right.

Chabal is a fine and hugely popular player but would probably better serve France as an impact player. To move the supremely talented and athletic Harinordoquy to the flank to make room for him seems like one of those half thought through decisions. Last time France were at Twickenham, Chabal was selected to play the hard man role, only to go missing for the entire match and hasn’t started since the drubbing by Australia in the Autumn. A ‘horses for courses’ selection policy rarely works completely with our belief being you should always pick the best players and trust them to do the job.

With most of his front line players available or in cases where they are not, the back ups doing a great job, Johnson has no such worries about his England team. It has been quite some time since an opposing team was partially selected on the basis of what England were doing – something that is a huge compliment to where he has taken England to over the past 6 months. Anyone who has been reading this blog for longer than this will remember how scathing we were about Johnson in the early part of his career as a selector and coach, yet the progress England have made over the past few months has meant he has justified his position. It may have taken two years of Steve Borthwick, annoying press conferences and interesting selections, but finally England are making sustained progress and we love it.

The game today could set either side up for a Grand Slam and so the importance cannot be understated. A disciplined, efficient and exciting England rightly start as favourites but France are probably still the more talented team. If they click you still never know what might happen and this uncertainty is why we cannot wait!

 





2010: International Rugby Review

5 01 2011

This is obviously a far from comprehensive review (being as it is based on our own personal ideas) so please feel free to let us know your own thoughts about the year just past.

First of all some Highlights…

New Zealand’s Tri Nations Performances

New Zealand have been brilliant all year but none more so than in the opening two fixtures of the Tri Nations.  Playing probably the most exciting high precision rugby we have ever had the pleasure to witness, the All Blacks destroyed  South Africa twice on consecutive weekends before going on to be unbeaten in this years competition. After a middling year in 2009 they showed once more they are the team to beat and with the World Cup coming in October of this year it would take a fairly imaginative piece of reasoning to suggest that they will not break their one remaining hoodoo.

Led by the evergreen and ever excellent Richie McCaw, marshaled by the incomparable and newly crowned leading point scorer in world rugby, Dan Carter, and sporting other such once in a generation talents as Mils Muliaina they are a side to be treasured as one perhaps verging on rugby perfection.

Despite this, Kiwi’s are a bunch who are particularly hard to please when it comes to rugby – the curse of being a side who win 75% or more of their games is that people do expect error free performances played in style – and won’t be happy with anything less than being world cup champions later in 2011. Yet, we do feel, admirable as it is to strive for more and coming as we do from a less richly talented rugby nation, that they should simply appreciate the AB’s a little more for what they are…

Scotland’s Win Against South Africa

At the other end of the rugby playing spectrum of quality, precision, pace and guile are Scotland. It is true they have improved beyond recognition under the intelligent coaching of Andy Robinson and have a pretty good set of loose forwards, yet even their most ardent supporters would admit they are a side of limited means. Brushed aside in the most dismissive of fashions by a New Zealand team who barely got out of second gear, they came up against the Springboks the following week.

In a performance filled with all those traditional Scottish attributes that the rugby media in the Northern Hemisphere love to wax lyrical about, Scotland defended brilliantly while taking all their available scoring opportunities. Dan Parks, in years gone by a derided and flakey figure, led the way and like the year before, Scotland had a famous victory to savour.

England Dominate Australia at Twickenham

From an English point of view there were one or two major highlights over the course of the year including the away win over the Aussies back in June. Yet the one that stood out for most fans would have been the 35-18 home win at Twickenham where England simply played Australia off the park in a style most would normally equate with southern hemisphere sides. Dominant in all aspects of the game and capped off by a remarkable long range try from Chris Ashton, this was one of the finest days to be an England fan, certainly over the last 8 years if not ever.

English Pride

Being an English fan has been hard for the last few years. Ever since the euphoria of that glorious night in Sydney back in 2003 died away and the cold reality hit of a changed regime and lesser players, it has been one disappointment after another. Coupled with an apparent desire to play the most unattractive rugby possible, frustrating selection decisions (Steve Borthwick anyone?!) and repeated obfuscation by the men in charge of England rugby, it has not been a happy period.

With Martin Johnson appearing to have finally found his feet in the coaching world and England now at least having a discernable sense of direction as well as a couple of good wins over southern hemisphere opposition under their belts, we have felt our pride returning. With many people offering England up as favourites for the Six Nations and a possible semi final place in New Zealand, we hope that our nascent confidence is not dashed immediately after this upwelling of national fervour.

And Now For Some Low Lights…

Southern Hemisphere Dominance

Despite one or two positive results in the Autumn along with a few close calls, it is fair to say that there is still a sizeable gap in quality. All the Celtic nations flattered to deceive with a distinctly average South Africa and young Australia side getting away with three out of four wins whilst France were frankly appalling. It is unlikely that on current evidence it will be a northern side lifting the Webb Ellis trophy in October and, quite frankly, it is business as usual.

France’s Failures

France entered the Summer internationals and the Autumn Internationals as Six Nations champions and the most likely team to upset the southern hemispheres hegemony. A dreadful tour of South Africa followed by a distinctly poor home series in the Autumn means that once again they find themselves in a very French form of disarray. Probably the most talented northern side on paper, Lievremont is now being left with an enormous amount to do if they are going to challenge down under come October.

Most Entertaining Player

Dan Carter. Probably the best ten ever, worlds record point scorer and a player whom we could watch all day long. Only other player we considered for this honour was his New Zealand team mate, Sonny Bill Williams whose off loading game was a joy to behold on the Blacks’ northern tour.

Heroes of the Year

Mils Muliaina. As key to the All Blacks as his captain and fly half, he goes on and on whilst never letting his standards drop.
Ben Youngs. Young, exciting and brilliant, this has been a breakthrough year for the Leicester scrum half. Long may it continue.

Villain of the Year

Pieter De Villiers. Singlehandedly does more to bring the South African rugby team’s name into the mud than anyone in the history of the game. A poor coach and a ridiculous man.

Any thoughts?





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





Autumn Internationals: England 16-26 New Zealand

7 11 2010



Analysing rugby is almost always an entirely subjective matter with two people watching in different parts of the world almost often having an entirely different view point – even if they are supporters of the same team – despite having watched the same match. Normally, however, amongst the ‘experts’ of the media, many of whom are ex-players themselves, a sort of consensus emerges. After yesterday’s trio of matches it is safe to say that this is certainly not the case.  With the first round of Autumn Internationals completed; almost every report you read in the various outlets have often strongly contrasting viewpoints and, being as we are in the business of writing sports opinion, it is our duty here and now to add to this mix…

Call us pessimists, call us cynical (or possibly even miserable) but for the Compulsive Hooker it appeared to be same old story. All ‘huff and [very little] puff’. Sport is ultimately about results and time and time again the Southern Hemisphere powers show that. Despite a lack of home advantage, they are usually comfortably better than their Northern Hemisphere opposition in almost all facets of the game. This is not to say that there was not a glimmer of hope for all three of Ireland, England and Wales during yesterday’s games; but in the end class told and once again it was 3-0 to the south.

England 16-26 New Zealand

Some of the biggest disparities in the press have come in the analysis of this match with, particularly in the English press, what we would regard as some fairly major fallacies being peddled.

This game was undoubtedly a game in which, for short periods at least, England’s much vaunted improvement of recent times was evident. In truth the scrum was the only part of the game where England could be said to have dominated their opposing numbers, yet pleasingly for some England supporters there were signs of a better game plan and a certain amount of ambition on show.

Unfortunately for the cynics (of which we count in their number) England’s positive steps are really, perhaps, just a demonstration that the very basics of the game are finally being grasped. That it should have taken 7 years and three coaches to get back to this stage is not exactly a great thing.

Putting on our ‘positive head’ though, we were pleased with Ben Youngs’ performance at nine as on the occasions where England were able to secure ball on the front foot, it was his distribution and initiative that led to much of the good work. Hape also had some good moments although it was fair to say that in more than one instance the pairing of Nonu and Williams exposed some limitations – he remains a work in progress. Tom Croft was industrious and showed glimpses of why he was so successful for the Lions in 2009; his forward partners and brothers of the front row, Sheridan and Cole, were excellent and provided a platform that a better side could have used to good effect. Foden, too, showed glimpses of his form against Australia in the Summer.

In amongst this several players were mired in a morass of ineffectiveness and an unfortunate lack of precision. Flood was the forerunner in this group; not exactly bad – just totally unable to imprint himself on the game. Ashton looked lightweight and fell off several tackles whilst offering little in attack. On the opposite wing, Cueto, looked off the pace – an intelligent footballer to be sure, but not one that holds any terrors for the opposition any more. Ashton in particular has shown enough promise to be worth sticking with but with Cueto should go.

In the third category of players who in our opinion are holding England back is the opinion polarising Nick Easter and the veteran centre Mike Tindall. Easter is the archetypal safe bet. A solid, dependable but crucially slow and curiously undynamic character; he capped yesterdays performance by a series of panicked errors in the run up to half time that showed, to us at least, that the return of James Haskell cannot come soon enough. At very least the word ponderous cannot be so freely applied to the Stade Francais man.

Tindall, again, is another safe but limited player who we hesitated in putting into this category although, once we realized this was out of loyalty to his past achievements, we added him to the list. Shown up by the AB’s centre pairing on more than one occasion, we have rarely seen him looking so laboured. The problem that Johnson has is one of who would you replace him with; there are few English 13’s around putting their hands up for this role and so for the short term at least he is a safe bet to retain his place.

New Zealand were a frustrated side for most of the game (credit which should be given to England for the manner in which they put the AB’s under pressure) but still had comfortably enough in the tank to make this victory one that was never really in doubt.

The centre partnership of Nonu and Williams, whilst lacking the finesse and communication of regular partners, was a success on the whole. On debut Williams showed enough good touches to show that he is unlikely to find a lack of class an issue at test match level. Gear was electric on the wing and has surely showed Henry enough reasons to stick with him for the time being.

The one area of concern might be in the scrum as Franks in particular was shown up on a regular basis by the combined power of the English forwards. This was not ultimately a factor, being as it is a less important factor in the modern game.

So, in summary, despite some good things, particularly the pressure and the spoiling that England were able to achieve, in the end class and efficiency told and the AB’s ran out comfortable and deserved winners.

Ireland vs South Africa to follow…





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.

 








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