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Monday, January 30, 2006

 

International Rugby: England need to take risks

Source: The Sunday Times
By: Stuart Barnes


WHAT do you want first, the good news or the bad news for England ahead of the Six Nations? The good? Andy Robinson’s team does not have to win the tournament to have a creditable campaign. Only the littlest of Little Englanders expects England to win in Paris by rights. Defeat there would not be the end of the world, as long as England win the other four games.

Now for the bad news: even if England win the other four games, it does not necessarily equate to a successful campaign. The easy measurement of any side is results. As far as Italy goes, that is fair enough. They have no realistic hopes in the World Cup. The Six Nations is not the starting point for their aspirations, it is the basis on which the future of their rugby will flourish or fail. The same is true for Scotland. But it is not the case for England.

For all their complaints concerning player availability, England have more players and more money than any other union. That is a potent combination which demands more than annual Six Nations success; indeed, it helped make them world champions in 2003. Nothing less than an intelligent defence of that crown should suffice when judging this team.

“Judge me on the World Cup,” said Robinson’s former boss Sir Clive Woodward. The same applies to this England set-up. That makes the Six Nations important, but not everything. It is a staging post, just as summer and autumn tours and Tri-Nations tournaments are. And that means the quality and nature of performance takes precedence over results.

Under Woodward, between 1998 and 2002 England played some of the most sublime rugby the nation’s fans will probably ever witness, but not until 2003 did that side achieve their Grand Slam and, then, the World Cup. The failures on the smaller stage were part of the greater success.

England, historically, is a conservative rugby nation. It used to gloat over pyrrhic victories. The Woodward era was a brief interlude when the broader picture weighed heavier than the immediate moment. He had to possess the hide of a rhinoceros because the public, like shareholders, tend not to care much for the bigger picture.

Robinson lacks the arrogance and self-belief of his mentor. If England are to inject some life into their stuttering march towards the World Cup, it is time for him to brave the wrath of the nation and take some risks. This is not a matter of England throwing caution to the wind and chucking the ball wide with abandon. It is a matter of seeking a balance that can succeed against South Africa or New Zealand in France as much as against a hobbling Wales.

This management has so far lacked the bravura to look beyond the next game. True, eventually Woodward said the next game was the most important and that the future would look after itself. But he only said it when he had a squad he knew was as talented and deep as any in the world. Robinson cannot afford short-term sentiments because his management have yet to unearth a team or squad to do justice to England’s status as world champions. However, short-term selections and no-risk strategy were the order of the day in 2005 and will be a temptation for the coach on Saturday. Home advantage and a powerful pack, allied with depleted Welsh numbers, make England strong favourites to avenge last season’s Cardiff loss. If England keep it tight and kick the corners, they should win with something to spare. It is tempting, but Robinson must resist the temptation.

The acid test will be the selection at outside-centre. Jamie Noon or Mike Tindall will do a belligerent job, but neither will assist Robinson’s team in their attempt to find the balance to deliver a world-class performance. By “world-class”, I mean a flexible approach where power or panache can hurt in equal measure. Once a team has that balance, it can choose the appropriate method dependent upon opposition. That was the mark of England’s 2003 team. This team has to find the courage to rely on anything other than the forward strength and battling qualities that ran an off-form New Zealand team close in November.

James Simpson-Daniel is the key name, not because he is definitely the answer at 13 — it is feasible this is not his best position — but because to risk playing him is to suggest that Robinson is not filled with the derision for intuition that seemingly haunts this power-obsessed management. If it fails, so be it, but there is only one way to find out.

The management should chance their entire squad, maybe more, in the next few months. The aversion to change has to change. Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick are probable starters against Wales but a week later, should England not be looking to Alex Brown in Italy to analyse his Test credentials? Or will England spool out the old nonsense about Italy’s pack and treating them with respect etc, etc.

England should be mixing various permutations and be confident of beating Wales and Ireland at home and Scotland and Italy anywhere. If the only way to get these results is to stick with the tried and trusted, England will be not be out of the World Cup starting gates while New Zealand are turning for home.

As for a Grand Slam, if England win in Paris they will have to be more than big and strong. To win there will require the balance of game England have lacked until now. A win in France is almost a guarantee that performances will match results. If they lose that one, judge them, first and foremost, on performance.

The key question

Where are England’s game-breakers? There is just a suspicion that this squad is full of fine international players but critically short of world-class players who can turn the game — perhaps by a surge of inspiration, an attitude or example, even by a near-perfect kicking ratio. They look efficient but despite talking the talk of pace and incisiveness, do England really have genius in their boots?
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