x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

England paid for tactical failure and indiscipline at Rugby World Cup

Southern Hemisphere teams are brutal about discipline. England, for their part, gave away more penalties than any other team in the tournament.

England's disappointed players leave the field after their quarter-final defeat to France on Saturday.
England's disappointed players leave the field after their quarter-final defeat to France on Saturday.

OK, hands up who did not, upon seeing England floundering about in the opening minutes of the opening Rugby World Cup clash with Argentina a couple of weeks ago, know that they were destined for a pre-semi-final walk of shame back to the changing rooms and then on to the airport departure lounge via a dip in Auckland harbour by Manu Tuilagi?

The only thing that saved England from losing that opener was that the Argentines somehow failed to capitalise on the long stream of silly penalties conceded by an opposition that had lost discipline and cohesion. The hit-man antics of Courtney Laws, the England lock forward, against Argentina was embarrassing.

Failure to deliver on expectations has become a hallmark of England rugby. On paper, the team's individual players are highly skilled, perfectly drilled and physically imposing. As a team, they are less impressive.

In Sunday's excellent clash between Australia and South Africa, just one penalty was conceded in the first 26 minutes of the game. Southern Hemisphere teams are brutal about discipline.

England, for their part, gave away more penalties than any other team in the tournament by the end of the quarter-final stages.

This is unbelievably stupid, especially as it is now quite normal to see penalty goals being kicked from as far out as 55 metres.

But bad discipline was not the only factor behind England's poor performance. The backs, for the most part, showed themselves to be weak tacklers and failed to put together unpredictable and penetrating attacking combinations.

I expected great things from Tuilagi, but the Samoan was, for the most part, buried under the opposition defence every time he got the ball. He was easier to read than a child's nursery rhyme. He compounded matters by diving off a ferry and being arrested.

It was obvious from the embryonic stages of the Argentina match that Jonny Wilkinson was past his prime, but the misguided notion that he might still reproduce some of the brilliance of 2003 kept him in play, ensuring inconsistency around one of the most strategically vital positions.

And there is something less tangible than tactical failure behind England's performance. It is something to do with attitude.

France suffered humiliation at the hands of Tonga, but picked themselves up and raised their game to beat England. The team who finished runners-up four years ago seemed incapable of recognising that their performance needed to improve.

England appeared to exhibit a sense of entitlement that was so at odds with the spirit of, say, the Argentine players, who whenever they came on the pitch looked around them in almost childlike amazement, clearly stunned and delighted to be representing their country in international competition.

With England, we were left to endure the sort of spectacle and attitudes more associated with overpaid celebrity Premier League footballers. The unfortunate truth is that rugby can only thrive if more money is put into the game.

But more money and the subsequent whittling away of the amateur spirit has brought forward a new class of celebrity contract player.

Take Matt Banahan, touted as England's Jonah Lomu. The most enduring image of this fellow I have is of his "body art" photo shoots (of wartime Spitfires) in the media. I have also seen enough of the smouldering, be-quiffed Toby Flood staring up at me from the pages of glossy magazines.

Harden up guys.

Look out for each other on the field and remember at all times that there are people who would give anything to put on the white jersey and represent England in the game we invented.

 

mnewland@thenational.ae