Ambitions of pedestrian England grind to a halt
Published 28/02/2010 | 08:24
The third act of a crossroads weekend in the Six Nations was not without its twists and turns, but Twickenham hardly rose to the occasion.
The mood was sombre at the outset, the tempo slow to the point of funereal throughout, with the two bursts by Tommy Bowe and the one by Keith Earls three exceptions, and the outcome a wrecking ball to England's reasoning that they can play however they damn well please as long as the result goes their way.
Possession is not a problem for England. They win tons of the wretched thing, from the scrum, the lineout and under the high ball. But the speed with which they advance grows slower and slower the longer they have the ball in their big arms.
The positional play of Jonny Wilkinson will come under scrutiny again, and it is true that he lay a long way back from his scrum-half. The communication skills of Danny Care inside Wilkinson and Riki Flutey outside him will be questioned, as will the eyes of Delon Armitage, who sees more openings from full-back than any other player. But the opportunities for the England backs are determined by the speed at which the ball is delivered to them. Ireland ground the breakdown to a halt and England could do nothing.
It has become a trend to extol the virtues of committing a minimum number of players to the breakdown. But perhaps England are not clearing out with enough body shifters. And it might be that too many forwards committing themselves to the ruck are looking to pick up the ball and drive forward, rather than clearing out opponents.
Steve Borthwick, for example, will never be a dynamic runner with the ball, but he stooped to pick it up at many rucks. He would surely have done more damage to Ireland and less to his own team's prospects if he had targeted a point about a yard past the ball.
If teams are going to pick and drive with deliberation at the expense of rapid release, they have to do it like Italy. In Rome, churning progress by the inch was the gameplan, with everybody positioned accordingly to support the ball carrier. That is, Italy packed their entire team bar a few dummy runners on the wide outside -- for that hanging kick -- within touching distance of the big bloke about to scoop the ball off the floor.
England went forward laboriously, but then lay deep and stretched themselves across the field. It was neither one thing or the other. To play like Italy would be an admission that nothing is in the development stage for the World Cup.
But to end up playing an Italian style without the grinding physicality of the victors over Scotland reveals that England are caught between what they want to do and what they can do. The difference between solving problems in Wales and England is that the former have to curb certain wild tendencies and do a shift or two in the abattoir. England are trying to put a counter-intuitive sheen to their game. They can slaughter pigs for fun, but making pretty shapes with the bladder is a bit of a mystery.
Wales were many things on Friday night, not all of them complimentary, but they are never anything but good value for the price of the ticket. The Millennium Stadium was everything Twickenham was not, vibrant, stirred, stirring, furious and ever so slightly hysterical.
The result was the same, a defeat for the home team, but there is something about Wales that suggests that under Warren Gatland they are going to play more faultlessly than they did against France and give a very good side a hiding. That comes with the proviso that they do not sack their coach, a habit that is almost a national pastime, but even the most conspiratorial Welsh follower must accept that Wales are on an exciting voyage of discovery.
Wales leap at the chance to be extravagant, sometimes at the expense of the basics, but even a defeat can make a sporting heart soar. One of their weaknesses would be a propensity to lose ball at the lineout, give ground at the scrummage. The lineout is something that can be fine-tuned in camp, with repeated rehearsal and then some more repetition. There's no excuse for not hitting a target and it is one of the delicious extremes of Wales that they can be so composed in their pursuit of the impossible and yet so flaky at the business of throw and catch.
The scrum is more difficult. France have given the Celtic nations a right battering at the scrummage, an exposure by one country whose clubs would never dare approach a game without an aggressive, tight-knit scrum, give a lesson to three nations where the scrummage is an inconvenience to tolerate. Ask Gethin Jenkins, one of the most remarkable players in the world, about the scrum and he wrinkles his nose.
Still, at least nobody else is in the position of Scotland, who came into the Six Nations with the most polished of ambitions but who have now lost three on the bounce, the last two in circumstances that would make their team doctor normally recommend a period of psychiatric recovery. Andy Robinson, their coach, is obsessive at the best of times. His head must be a weird place. As such, it had its part to play in the crossroads weekend, three acts of delight and dismay, of Grand Slam exuberance and muted disapproval. Rome burnt with joy while Twickenham ground to a damp halt.