The phoney warm-up war
August 16, 2011
Will Martin Johnson adopt the 2007 tactic of relying on Jonny Wilkinson's boot to win matches come the World Cup? © Getty Images
I doubt whether Rudyard Kipling would have relished being a sports reporter or supporter, but if ever there was a time to treat England's triumphs and disasters just the same, it is now. The alternative would be to take the performance in Wales last weekend as a reliable guide to the next few weeks - and if we did that we might as well switch off the PC, draw a black veil over the television or rip up any World Cup tickets with 'Otago Stadium' or 'Eden Park' printed on them.
England fly to Dunedin very soon, there to play Argentina, Georgia and Romania indoors, and after that on to Auckland to face Scotland and - they hope, oh how they hope - perhaps France, Australia and New Zealand in the quarter-final, semi-final and final respectively. The wretched state of parts of their performance in Cardiff has clouded all that itinerary up to and including the Scots in a shadowy light, and never mind the business end of the competition.
Everyone has their own view on how meaningful these pre-World Cup matches are. I was impressed but nonplussed that 150,000 watched England's two friendlies with Wales at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium. These meetings, to me, were not likely to be in the tradition of Anglo-Welsh clashes in which every metre is fought for, tooth and nail; every point earned with a burst blood vessel. In the early stages in Cardiff when England's defensive line trotted towards the Welsh at a gentle pace, I thought I saw confirmation that at least one of the teams was using the fixture in the way it was intended: as a loosener and a stepping stone on the path to New Zealand.
One aspect above all shattered my sensible theory. In any sport there is a simple pleasure and an unimpeachable honesty in doing the basics well. The short pass to a team-mate in space in football; the black off the spot in snooker; the forehand volley into an open court in tennis. Just do it, as England's clever-clever kit manufacturer might say (why the adjective? Because instead of being frank and saying the all-black kit was designed specifically with New Zealand in mind, as surely it must have been, their only public explanation is that it was chosen as a contrast to white. I don't believe it).
When England made it into the Wales 22 - and deep into the 22, regularly and at greater pace, funnily enough, than we have been accustomed to in recent years - they should have scored tries. All it needed was teamwork and Test-standard skill; straighten the angle, pass the ball and solve the puzzle of getting yourself or a team-mate over the line. I am fed up with bemoaning that New Zealanders and Australians and, yes, Welshmen appear innately better at operating in twos and threes to get the ball where it needs to be.
"The All Blacks would have scored there" should have been programmed into the pitchside advertising boards and flashed in England's faces as they trooped off to a post-match inquest in which - correctly - no one said it was the end of the world but Toby Flood, equally rightly, denounced the standard of finishing.
In some ways, England hammered Wales: on the counts of line breaks, scrums and line-outs, possession and territory. If that is repeated down under with a couple of tries and goal-kicks thrown in England will sail through their pool. The sinking feeling at the moment comes from the way some old failings such as slow ball at the ruck and that red-zone ineptitude resurfaced in Cardiff.
The English liking for big forwards standing off for third or fourth phase ball will not change, but when England were effective last season it was with Courtney Lawes, Tom Palmer, Tom Croft and Tom Wood ferrying that ball quickly (and not losing it contact) and recycling it speedily. Only then will the likes of Ben Foden - hardly seen last weekend in his first match for three months - make the most of his attacking skill. Leaving Foden to attack only from opposition kicks and errors is not making the most of him. Better to play Delon Armitage, in fact, if such containment is the plan.
Many wise heads counsel that a team who does well in a World Cup must have a good scrum and line-out above any other consideration. Among the many things currently striking fear into English hearts is the thought that France might get their set-piece act together, that New Zealand have rediscovered a love of scrummaging and that even the Australians might have turned up a front row worthy of the name. Defence is the other staple of World Cup winners and we can see it writ large in the musclebound Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape that Martin Johnson has it high on his agenda.
But Johnson's ghastliest nightmare must be opponents playing an English game better than England do. It could happen on day one, against Argentina at the Otago Stadium, so what will be Johnson's tactics? In 2007 England concentrated on winning the ball and getting Jonny Wilkinson to kick it. It worked fine against France in the semi-final, following on from a quarter-final in which Australia's backs made as many inroads as England's did a few days ago in Cardiff, with a not much better success rate.
Will Johnson turn now to Wilkinson for a repeat game plan in New Zealand? Or will England, perhaps with a cool, defiant sense that only they know the score - that, yes, there is a difference between the phoney warm-up war and the main event - reunite their most dynamic forwards to give whoever is in the midfield enough ammunition to win matches with a more varied game. The alternative view - that whoever England pick, they are congenitally unable to take the 10- or 15-point win they should have had in Cardiff - would make even old even-handed Rudyard snap his quill in despair.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Hugh Godwin is the rugby union correspondent for the Independent on Sunday