England remain horrendously limited
February 18, 2009
Martin Johnson's England continue to be plagued by disciplinary woes © Getty Images
Six out of six - untold of riches but now the going really does get tough.
However, contrary to my pre-tournament prediction everything is going to form at the moment. With two rounds gone that is almost unheard of in the Six Nations.
I have to confess I was worried when I arrived in Cardiff last Friday. There was no sense of triumphalism from the Welsh fans but every Englishman I spoke to out on the street and on various radio and television previews was so full of gloom and doom I started to see banana skins everywhere especially when I discovered you could only get Wales at 5-1 on if you wanted a straight bet - crazy!
The one comforting factor was knowing neither the team nor the coaches believed it was a foregone conclusion so there was no question of complacency and as the Welsh XV built the pressure in the opening minutes you knew it was business as usual. That is the reassuring thing about this Welsh side. There is a consistency that must be the envy of every other coach in Europe.
Wales did not play that well but they never really looked in trouble and were able to weather a considerable England storm with something to spare. But this was a real 'Test' and whilst 'Heroic England' - The Mail on Sunday's headline - was way over the top they can certainly take heart from it.
At last we saw Andrew Sheridan ploughing forward and making real yardage, Joe Worsley did a terrific job despite my misgivings and everybody looked as if wearing the jersey meant something to them.
Nevertheless, the game plan was horrendously limited, Andy Goode can only play one way, and yet again the captain, Steve Borthwick was almost totally anonymous. Even his much heralded line-out expertise was completely nullified because Wales only allowed England three throws!
Martin Johnson did himself no favours with his claim that England are currently suffering from a 'perception issue' with referees about killing the ball at breakdowns.
The only problem is if England perceive they are being pinged unfairly. Quite a few English journalists were prepared to jump on the 'referees have a downer on England' bandwagon - immediately adding, 'But England have brought it on themselves' as a sort of disclaimer. Make your mind up guys!
Jonathan Kaplan is not my favourite referee (even after Saturday) but he is renowned for being a stickler about killing the ball, offside and repeated infringements. England defence coach, Mike Ford, was well aware of that and - thorough fellow that he is - warned his men.
They forgot those warnings in the heat of battle. It was pressure that caused the sin-binnings not a 'perception issue.'
England gave away three early penalties under pressure, Kaplan warned them the next man to go off his feet would be binned yet Mike Tindall did exactly that deep inside his own 22 - no argument.
Similarly, as Wales upped the pace and the pressure immediately after half-time Goode had to dive in illegally to prevent a score. The consensus amongst some hard-headed old internationals in the press box was that he had done the right thing.
So, forget all this nonsense about perceived injustice (because that's what they want to say) this is all about learning to survive without conceding when the going gets tough. Ironically, (said with irony) Wales had exactly the same problem when they were playing most of their rugby on the back foot.
France's performance against Scotland was peculiar. After the loss in Ireland the players and coaches were all singing from the same hymn-sheet - not great but we've rediscovered the beautiful game and that's the way forward. So why did they abandon it at home? Nobody seems to know.
Scotland will be much happier with their performance. The Evans brothers look like the real deal, Phil Godman seems determined to play as an attacking playmaker which is something Dan Parks and Chris Paterson never did so now there is a real threat behind the scrum. The forwards will be delighted - they have improved hugely over the last two seasons and must have been despairing that their efforts were never ever going to bring any rewards.
What Italy coach, Nick Mallett would give for such green shoots. Once again the Italian pack toiled with Herculean application - except for the discipline - but they must know it is a hopeless task until the coach can discover some new backs. It took Hercules 12 years to prevail; let's hope their labours are rewarded before that.
Which leaves Ireland top of the table, as predicted. They are looking hungry and dangerous again - back to where they were two years ago but with some important changes in personnel.
It was tough weekend for the players. They will undoubtedly welcome the break - time to take stock and search for that little bit extra because it's boiling up nicely.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com