Monday, September 17, 2007

So where's it all going wrong?

England's RWC travails have left most of us wondering whether someone had significantly changed the rules since the last time out. A stumbling performance against the US Eagles was followed by bald failure in the face of South Africa's (not inconsiderable) threat. But for all the menace of the Boks, more worrying was England's paucity of ideas, pedestrian running and inept execution. The wheels haven't just fallen off; the transmission appears to have bust too.

Stoic resistance was one characteristic of Friday's drubbing - and defensively we fought pretty well, managing to head off Habana and co for the most part of the first half. However, in possession, not only were penetrative moves at a premium, but attempted incursions often became shambolic retreats, the ball slipping through groping fingers, bouncing of body parts, and compounding the already parlous lack of ideas.

How has this happened on Ashton's watch? A coach renowned for his ability to get players' hands on the ball and minds in gear, he has been reduced to piecing together a physically intimidating, but mentally slow, team of hasbeens and hopefuls with little opportunity to fine-tune their thinking. That said, even if they were all on the same wavelength, the low level of skill represented by the white shirt currently would probably see any semblance of sophisticated rugby remain an island in a sea of turgid forward play.

A case in point must be Andy Farrell, for all that I think he is a good player. His speed of thought at times cannot be matched by his speed of hand (and the first isn't particularly lightning), forcing him to try things that are patently not on. Giving away possession helps release pressure on a defending team and England as a whole have been guilty of basic mistakes that let their opponents of the hook. Amateurish errors and sloppy penalties have rendered what game plan we do have effectively null and void - the fact that no one appears to be running lines, attempting to outwit defences, or offloading effectively in the tackle shouldn't mean that simple passing through the hands is beyond us.

With the honourable exception of Jason Robinson, who played like blood and thunder against the Springboks, and Olly Barkley, who missed the most recent outing, we look glaringly ill-equipped to take on the top nations at this tournament. It's to be hoped that a certain Mr. Wilkinson will return to the fold for the Samoa game, if only for his ability to extract points in the face of the most stubborn resistance, while a fit Barkley wouldn't go amiss either. However, Ashton perhaps needs to go with his gut from now on, and stop attempting to balance old and new ideologies. Only by freeing his players from their mental shackles (and sharpening up their basic skills) will England be able to endure at this World Cup now.

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