Tuesday 16 January 2018

Lancaster has more to worry about than costly calls

England 15 South Africa 16 Chris Hewett

Suddenly, the public perception of Chris Robshaw – and, indeed, of the coach who made an England captain of him, Stuart Lancaster – is that they learnt all they know about firm leadership and clear-minded decision-making while studying at the King Lear Academy of Fine Judgement.

Never mind that the national team, still in the early stages of its development, lost by one miserable point against the second best side in world rugby and that many of the calls made against the Springboks were as sound as a bell. Robshaw and Lancaster are deep in clanger territory.

A single-point defeat against opponents shorn of a handful of big-name players, but armed with the cleverest of strategists in Ruan Pienaar and a lock forward in Eben Etzebeth who may, in the fullness of time, be bracketed with Martin Johnson and John Eales as a modern second-row great, is hardly cause for recourse to the Samaritans.

But the manner of the game's denouement, hard on the heels of the tactical muddle against the Wallabies seven days previously, started a fresh landslide of controversy.

Was Robshaw right or wrong to opt for a three-point penalty shot, with his side four points behind and only a couple of minutes left on the clock? Should he have slipped into "seize the moment" mode and gone to the corner in search of a match-winning try?

Put like that, the decision should have been a no-brainer. But as Lancaster argued post-match, it was not a call of the "black and white" variety. There were logical arguments either way. Against the Wallabies, the captain repeatedly went for the corners because he believed the Australian forwards would buckle, crack and eventually snap under the pressure of England's mauling game. As Springbok packs snap about as often as Table Mountain, his initial instinct here was to bag the available points as quickly as possible, claim the restart kick with a minimum of fuss and go through the phases one last time in the hope of forcing another penalty or establishing a drop-goal position. Fair enough.

Had the Harlequins flanker gone in search of the try, he would have been equally justified. Even had the Boks burgled the line-out – a distinct possibility, on the evidence of their success in this area over the previous 77 minutes – they could only have cleared to touch and given England another shot.

What was not justified was any prolonged delay between the awarding of the penalty (for an illegal tackle by Marcell Coetzee on the outstanding Geoff Parling) and the goaling of it.

Sadly, this was precisely what occurred as a 'committee meeting' about what to do delayed Robshaw signalling for the sticks and Owen Farrell sticking the ball between them by almost a minute – a good 30 seconds longer than necessary and extremely costly in the context of the moment.

Lancaster was in no mood to reflect on the issue. With the All Blacks heading his way, there were more urgent things occupying his mind – fitness concerns over Toby Flood; the poor form of Chris Ashton; the ongoing lack of creativity in midfield and the severe criticism being levelled at his captain. Problems, problems. (© Independent News Service).

Irish Independent

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