x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

England rugby union team's Plan A is boring but effective

They have qualified for the Rugby World Cup by winning the forward battle, not letting the ball go any wider than their fly-half, and getting Jonny Wilkinson to kick the points.

England's Plan A is boring but effective

There are plenty of similarities between England's national football team and their rugby-playing compatriots.

They both play in white, obviously. They both have grouchy managers with expressive foreheads who are pragmatists rather than romantics and are more than happy to travel to major tournaments with injured players in tow.

Neither team wants for anything. When the footballers played at the World Cup in South Africa last summer, their hotel was fitted with a games arcade containing all their favourite video games. Meanwhile, a stash of comfort food, including 30 kilogrammes of custard, was flown out especially.

The England rugby union team have enjoyed similar comforts ever since Sir Clive Woodward, their 2003 World Cup-winning coach, espoused the importance of looking after the "thousand critical non-essentials" which contribute towards success.

This time around, England have freighted their own scrum machine all the way with them to New Zealand - a country so in thrall to rugby there is one of the tank-like contraptions on almost every street corner.

There is a method to England's thinking: they do not want to be seen using a rival brand of scrum machine.

Perhaps the most important similarity between the 11-man code and the 15-man code in England, however, is the fact that both play well in October.

This is, of course, also what sets them apart.

For the overpaid, underachieving footballers, it is more a source of angst than something to celebrate.

Because nothing of any worth ever really happens in football in October.

When summer comes around and the major championships are there to be won, they surrender.

In rugby, however, October once every four years is when the main real action takes place.

And England, who remain the only northern hemisphere nation to have won the World Cup, have made a habit of doing well at this time of year.

We say "well".

That probably needs qualifying. They play well in a "let's win the game at any cost even if it makes people turn off their televisions" type way.

Not a "let's throw the ball around and keep everyone on the edge of their seats" way.

England have hardly set the world alight in the nearly four years since they reached the last World Cup final in Paris.

But that does not really count for much.

Before the tournament in France - and indeed most of the time during the competition - they were dire, yet they still found a way to muddle through to the final.

There are no secrets to it. They win the forward battle, do not let the ball go any wider than their fly-half, and get Jonny Wilkinson to kick the points.

It is what they call "tournament rugby".

It should have been harder for sides to shove the ball up their jumpers since, at Woodward's prompting, skin-tight rugby shirts became de rigueur.

But England still stuck steadfastly to the 10-man game plan which has served them so well since they came unstuck in the 1991 final by trying to entertain instead.

By the look of the squad Martin Johnson, the manager, has named for this competition, they are not about to grow any frills any time soon.

As Jeremy Guscott, a World Cup finalist in 1991, said of his long-time former teammate, Johnson, in Dubai this week: "He's from Leicester. He's a second-row forward. Let's be honest, he's boring."

Plan A may look like it is going to be boring, but it is much better than Plan B - because there isn't one.

But in the past Plan A has usually been just about good enough.


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