Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dust to Dust.

As England crumble miserably in the face of a torrential assault in Brisbane, the obits must be being primed for rugby's Robbo, in spite of last week's victory.

The difference in pedigree between Duncan Fletcher and Andy Robinson could not be more pronounced, but as both the men in whites and the soon-to-be deposed World Champions struggle against Southern hemisphere opposition their respective coaches must be fingering their colours with grim desperation.

After Ireland's sublime subjugation of the Aussie's last week, we saw a vibrant example of how European teams need to take their game to their antipodean counterparts. The energy of their back row (the destructive power of Neil Best contrasted with Dennis Leamy's tireless probing) was strikingly at odds with what England's 6, 7 and 8 have managed to produce, today or at any point over the past three weeks.

There is currently not a man in the England set-up who can be said to stand head and shoulders above the sea of mediocrity that has characterised Robinson's reign. Corry's workaday honesty on the pitch is not enough to inspire a tragically one-dimensional squad, while the engine room components such as Worsley, Sanderson and Moody fire repeatedly but equally fail to ignite. From 9 through to 15 there seems a lack of confidence, ideas and sheer gumption - today, as before, runners declined to fix their man, offloaded in dead territory, and watched on as wave after wave of attack sputtered out. Of the personnel, maybe Cueto, Lewsey and Tom Palmer have distinguished themselves this autumn, but the rest has been little short of dross.

Robinson's claim that things were 'happening' when England moved into their early 14-3 lead seemed more self-deception that conviction; but his pugnacious refusal to bite the bullet sums up the team's bloody-minded approach to the game. It's been said that Robinson is nothing more than a good forwards coach thrown in at a depth he wasn't prepared for, but what seems certain is that his inability to appreciate the subtleties of international rugby is harming our chances. Surely the more scholarly Andrews must feel that a fresh and innovative approach is required. In becoming an immovable object, in the worst sense, England have lost their irresistible force.

As New Zealand grind Wales into the Millennium turf, the sporting landscape looks bleak currently (there's not time to even begin to poke at McClaren's footballing travails). Awaking to discover we'd barely scraped a quarter of the Kangeroo's total in the cricket was disheartening enough. Fletcher has earned a few breaks since he took over, but his decision to leave out Panesar has left him open to criticism. With the attack looking toothless apart from Flints, and Harmison's radar completely wonked, Monty's probing and restrictive spin could have proved vital. We'll never know. The one hope is that England's young team can learn a lot from facing such naked aggression, and use it to school a decrepit Australian squad in 2009. Woodward took Wilkinson and co on the Tour to Hell in '98, and it paid dividends years later. Out of the pain of defeat...

Our cricketing and rugby fortunes shouldn't converge any more than they already have. Although we're odds-on to lose at the Gabba, respectability can still be extracted from the tour. Half the battle, as ever, is psychological, and if the lads screw their heads on, they should be able to compete, even if drawing the series to retain the urn is ultimately beyond them. At Twickenham, I think there are two options. 1) Leave Robinson with the car keys until after World Cup, see how we hobble through it, and then get out the wrecking ball and tear up the entire professional set-up. 2) Depose him now, try a host of new players and ideas in the Six Nations, then hit the World Cup like a wet-behind-the-ears terrier.

We surely couldn't do any worse than currently?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Re: Familiar Faces

D'oh. Well, that just bred a whole load of contempt, didn't it. The only poultice for the wound would be Robinson falling on his sword this afternoon. We wait expectantly...

P.S. Good to see France are as village as us though!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Familiar Faces

It’s good to see Andy Robinson stick with largely the same line-up that came off so badly against the Kiwis last week. Apart from Perry Freshwater coming in for Andrew Sheridan (who is still to live up to the reputation as a destroyer he created for himself against the Aussies last year) there is continuity throughout the team.

That means another chance for young Anthony Allen, who I thought impressed despite a couple of errors. His ability to break the line was heartening, and it was his movement that finally sent Noon over for a (legitimate) try – albeit through a slightly fortunate bounce after the intended pass went a little astray.

The high tackle which Daniel Carter handed-off with alacrity was a rooky error (though, despite being slightly older that Allen, I still tend to make the same mistake; England call up anyone…?) but hopefully he’ll wear the scars on his sleeve and make mincemeat of the next 5/8 who tries it on.

Richard Williams got some flak out there on the t’interweb last week for striking up the old clarion call for monsieur le Jonny – but it has to be said that there’s a paucity of candidates. Hodgeson’s confidence is so brittle that a misplaced pass in the warm-up might be enough to break him, and there are times, although not specifically last week, when his inability to nail kick-after-kick-after-kick (or even just ‘kick’) loses us games (France 2005 sticks in the mind). But who else is there? Goode is not goode enough, at least not until he obtains the physique of a rugby player to go with his kicking skills. Lamb would surely be one to the slaughter just now, and Toby Flood is hardly looking like the next Matt Giteau.

The Wilko debate is academic, as his fantabulous injury bandwagon shows no sign of halting (report). I’d be interested to see if Olly Barkely’s matured enough for the role – when I watched
England vs Wales in 2004, he looked callow, but he’s a bit bigger now, and should flourish under Ashton. That said, he was Hodgeson’s partner in criminal offences in the aforementioned France game.

Interestingly, although Mark Van Gisbergen was slotting everything in front of him last season (equalling Wilkinson's consecutive kicking record in the process), he subsequently hit a sticky patch of form just before the Autumn internationals, got a few minutes as a temporary replacement against Australia, and then was shunted to Andy Robinson’s box of odd socks. Being as Ian Balshaw didn’t exactly light the blue touch paper last week (he might have found it, but he probably punted it into touch), why not stick the itinerant Kiwi plumber at 15, and let him have a crack?