Focusing on the long-term rewards
November 28, 2012
Ben Kay backs Chris Robshaw over his decisions against South Africa © PA Photos
England will go into this weekend's game against New Zealand with the odds stacked against them and on the back of two successive defeats, but they can feel aggrieved at having lost to the Boks last weekend.
They deserved to win that game, but they are a team in transition. While there will be some critics of this current run of form, there are two paths we can take. We can go on and make rash decisions - changing the side and altering how we play and probably turn out to be the fourth or fifth best team in the world - or we can develop, grow as a unit and potentially turn into the best side in the world.
And one man who came in for a lot of criticism on the back of that loss to the Boks was captain Chris Robshaw - following his late call to kick the penalty when they were four points down rather than gamble and go for touch. I for one have been really annoyed by this criticism. I think it's totally unwarranted to call someone 'Captain Calamity', especially from people who've probably never played a game of Test rugby in their life.
In my opinion, it was the right decision to go for the points. If you disregard my opinion or not, it was certainly a viable decision to go for the kickable penalty in that England haven't scored a driving lineout in five years. They were up against the best lineout in international rugby and one of the biggest and most aggressive forward packs in the world and if you're going for a driving lineout when the opposition know that they can afford to give away a penalty, or get someone sin-binned, then it makes it very hard. So, I think the right decision was to get the points, recover the kick-off, get back down there and even if you have only 20 seconds left on the clock, you still have enough time to get what could be a winning penalty - all the pressure is on the opposition and the referee.
Owen Farrell looked to question Robshaw's decision and part of that is that Farrell is a young lad and they have also probably never been in that situation before. It's a learning curve for Farrell and I'm sure that Stuart Lancaster will say to the team that whatever happens now: 'trust your captain'. The right thing to do in that situation, from Farrell's perspective, was to knock it over and get back down to your half, with your body language showing that you are in complete control. But that is why Lancaster is picking this young side at the moment so that they get that experience and can develop.
With that in mind, ahead of the All Blacks, it is the right decision to back Farrell at No.10 this weekend. For Freddie Burns, having not played any Test rugby and in such a pivotal position, being named on the bench will take the original pressure of starting off him. Hopefully he'll get some game time and who knows, he could change the game.
But as is the case with Test rugby, if he is picked from the start and it goes pear-shaped then his selection is questioned and he could even be pigeon holed as someone who is good in a club environment and not on an international stage. Farrell is pretty solid and you can see by his reaction with Robshaw that he is ultra-competitive and a born winner so he won't let anyone down
Courtney Lawes' recall to the 23-man squad is also getting some headlines, but he should also begin on the bench. Second-rows Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling were two of the standout players from the Boks game. You won't get, by choice, Lawes and Launchbury in the team as a starting pairing as Parling brings the lineout leadership. And I thought he handled that area of the game very well against South Africa with Tom Youngs having an off-day but Parling helped Youngs re-find his confidence and brought him back into the game. But there is no doubting that Lawes is a fantastic player. He could, in the future, put some pressure on Tom Wood as a blindside and I am sure that at some point Lawes will be one of the starting names on the team sheet.
England head into Saturday's match as massive underdogs but it's a game of rugby and of course they have got some hope. But you would not bet any money on England to win unless the odds were extortionately good. New Zealand are by far and away superior at the moment, their Test team is superb and the most impressive thing is that whenever they get an opportunity, they go up a gear. While their possession stats are not drastically better than other teams, the metres gained from carries are outstanding. They see opportunities, raise their levels and usually get across the line.
But in the grand scheme of things, it is important to remember that while Saturday's game might seem like an important game for English rugby, it is a pretty meaningless match in the long-term with IRB rankings already sorted for Lancaster's side ahead of the 2015 World Cup draw. England should look to the positives; it is a great opportunity for the youngsters to get some game time against the best team in the world.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN