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!





End of Tour Thoughts and Maori Passion

23 06 2010

If you missed the New Zealand Maori versus England game this morning we would recommend you watch the highlights as it was an excellent match and one in which running rugby was well and truly to the fore. Whilst the Maori’s ended up running out winners 35-28 after 18 unanswered points in the second half, there were plenty of positives to take from the game for Martin Johnson and ends the Summer tour with a balance sheet (including mid week games) of 2 wins, 2 losses and 1 draw, which on the whole, is a respectable result and something to build on.

The big tour positive was of course the win over Australia last Saturday and the general performance of the scrum in all games including todays, in which, the Maori were consistently out scrummaged although with Liam Messam tidying things up at the back it was not such a problem as it had been for the Aussies.  It is true that the back play remained fairly wooden throughout the tour, bar perhaps periods on Saturday and against the Maori today where, in the first half at least, they managed to play with some real flair.

So many combinations have now been tried by the England management in the 12 and 13 positions without ever totally convincing that it is important they pick a pairing and stick with them soon. For us at the Compulsive Hooker, we would like to see Flutey come back in outside Flood and inside Tindall, as, in our eyes (and although we didn’t see the 2nd test against Australia) Hape has not totally convinced. The Maori showed today, as every Kiwi team always seems to, how to execute precision running rugby at speed which when done well will always unlock holes in the opposition. True there were some knock ons and passes that didn’t go to hand but it was done at a pace rarely seen in an England back line. England’s first half had been an improvement but was still someway off the Maori’s pace.

Along these lines, one call we think Johnson should make soon is to discard Matthew Tait. There will likely be howls of protest if and when this happens as he is seen as a player with rare running ability including that semi mythical thing in modern day English rugby, the outside break, but for us he is simply too lightweight and doesn’t seem to run the lines he should as a game-breaking 13. In this mornings game against the Maori Tait went backwards or turned the ball over seemingly every time he was on the ball. This is a slight exaggeration of course as he was involved in one or two good things as well, yet the general hypothesis is true. This is aligned with the fact that his defence was also tested and found to be vulnerable by the Kiwi backs.

We have been fairly vociferously anti-Johnson on this site (anti his position as Head Coach you understand – not anti the great man himself!) but we are prepared to concede ground after this tour. We still think he is not the man for the job and would rather someone else came into take charge as soon as possible, yet with these small signs of progress, it seems slightly pointless to pursue a campaign that has no chance of being successful.





Summer Internationals Preview: Rugby

10 06 2010

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

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

England vs Australia (Perth)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Australia 35-13 England

A quick look at the other two big games:

New Zealand vs Ireland

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

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

Prediction: All Blacks 32-19 Ireland

South Africa vs France

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

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

Prediction: South Africa 21 – 29 France

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Leicester Do It Again & England vs Barbarians

30 05 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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England vs Barbarians

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

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

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





One Kiwi Down, One Kiwi In

6 02 2010

Bad news for England yesterday in the shape of Riki Flutey pulling out of the Wales game this weekend. Flutey was likely to be an integral part of the midfield although Johnson has had the luxury of pulling in a second Kiwi to replace him in the form of Hape. Flood starts, but Hape’s bench inclusion ensures our quota of one disaffected kiwi for the match. The more we think about it, the more we are convinced that it is wrong that Hape should be playing, and for that matter Flutey. For the record we love Flutey’s fast feet and hands, however two men, one who has played for the Kiwi Maori side and the other for the Kiwi rugby league team, probably have no place representing England. We can understand it if Hape was to have an English parent but we disagree with the residency qualifications which is the route both players used.   

Mind you, if someone is a British passport holder then you can’t really deny them, even if it feels wrong. This is far from a new conundrum and is one which is likely to grow and grow as the world become a smaller place.

On the subject of Flood’s selection we are slightly worried. A little like Bangaladesh in cricket, we have been firmly in the ‘give him a chance, he’s good really’ with Flood. A quote by that deity of rugby coaches, Ian McGeechan summed him up for us however. Geeks said “I just can’t get excited by the way he plays” which is fairly damming and has knocked our faith in him.





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?








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