Tuesday, December 1, 2009

England's blunt attacking edge needs honing from the top down

It has been a long six years since England lifted the World Cup. Over the past fortnight that momentous night in Sydney has felt increasingly distant, flickering in the memory like an old Pathe newsreel. Even Martin Johnson is beginning to sound like a hard-pressed politician, claiming signs of progress despite the contradictory evidence. "Maybe it doesn't seem so to some people but we are making strides." As with the supposed economic recovery, it depends on whom you talk to.

Johnson, of course, will for ever remain in credit on English rugby's swingometer, regardless of what lies ahead. Respect for his achievements as a player, even so, cannot obscure fault lines which urgently need addressing. Do the management, not to mention the Rugby Football Union hierarchy, truly believe England are looking good for the 2010 Six Nations rugby and beyond? On the evidence of the autumn, even taking injuries into account, Johnson's inner cabinet are no closer to stockpiling trophies than they were 18 months ago.

Although New Zealand's defence is as tight as any – they have not conceded a try in Cardiff, Milan or London – England's meagre tally of one try in 240 minutes of rugby also tells a story. Attack-wise, they remain about as fluent as an inexperienced pianist with frostbitten fingers. Their autumn campaign, in the end, yielded two try-less defeats and a truly dire victory over the Pumas. England, to be blunt, have looked a mediocre team under worthy but unenlightened management.

I like to take people on and run from my own line and, if England do not agree with that style of rugby, I am not their man." England may not be playing well, but their two home matches in next year's Six Nations hospitality are already sell-outs and all the hospitality for the first game, against Wales in February, have been taken. Australia and New Zealand are not so fortunate commercially and they will express their concerns about the stagnancy of the game on the field at this weekend's gathering of the International Rugby Board's general assembly in Dublin, followed by a meeting of the council.

The fixture list, for a start, is unforgiving. Three stamina-sapping away games await in the Six Nations, two of them against improving Scotland v France, while Wales v Ireland will both fancy their chances in south-west London. Two summer Tests in Australia will be followed by a punishing autumn schedule against South Africa, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. Kill or cure is the phrase that comes to mind.

The bottom line, though, is clear enough. England under Johnson in 2009 played 10 Tests, winning five and losing five. They have been beaten in their last eight games against New Zealand and their last six against South Africa. In five contests against Tri Nations sides at home soil in the past 12 months, the men in white have scored a princely total of one try. This lack of cutting edge meant New Zealand could splutter and still win comfortably, with Carter missing two kickable penalties and a couple of tries going begging prior to Jimmy Cowan's neatly worked 57th-minute effort.

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