England may lack star quality
September 3, 2011
Will Jonny Wilkinson or Toby Flood fill the England No.10 shirt for their World Cup opener against Argentina? © Getty Images
It is becoming a byword about England that they do well in World Cups: the evidence is two losing finals and a victory in the last five attempts. You might reasonably counter that their shattering exits in 1987, 1995 and 1999 were as ignominious as anything suffered by any other major country, New Zealand included. But if we are to detect some common theme in the efforts regarded as successes - in 1991, 2003 and 2007 - what might it be?
It struck me when having a restorative pint in Dublin a few hours after the recent 20-9 friendly win that one factor in England's favour is that the World Cup is not the Six Nations . The Irish, Scots and Welsh have defined themselves down generations of rugby men by Championship success; when they host England on their home grounds, they feed like off their crowd like feral animals picking up the scent of a prey. That fervour was tangible when Ireland tore into England's Grand Slam hopefuls at the Aviva Stadium last March - and noticeably absent for the warm-up match last time out. It tends to be less obvious for the Celts too at World Cups - whereas the English have had their supporters flood Australia and France for the last two tournaments, and they were rewarded well for their efforts and expenditure.
I doubt whether as many white jerseys will be seen in New Zealand although there are probably enough ex-pats to make their presence known, but I feel too that the settled nature of a World Cup build-up suits England. Knowing the make-up of their 30-man squad with no rancorous battle for places fits their methodical nature, if you'll forgive a little national stereotyping. Where Irish, Welsh and Scottish teams have often revelled in chaotic rugby, your average Englishman learns this diktat in his formative years: throw the ball to the big bloke and let the little bloke behind him kick it as far as possible down the field. It follows that if you are certain who the big and little blokes are, it will make you happier and more confident.
Then there are the building blocks of a winning team. Okay, it feels like a woeful statement of the obvious to write that any decent World Cup campaign requires a good scrum and line-out, but that's what England coaches go to bed in the evening and wake up in the morning think about. Can you imagine Martin Johnson or even Clive Woodward or Brian Ashton presiding over, say, the Australian scrum of four years ago and saying 'ah well, not to worry, we'll kill them with tries instead'?
The points above may strike you as rather dry considerations and you're right: what will turn all of us on about the next few weeks will be England's talent and tactics. For that Grand Slam match in March, Johnson left out Courtney Lawes (though he was available again after injury) and had Tom Croft only on the bench. The starting front five was Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole, Louis Deacon and Tom Palmer. A couple of weeks ago Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson, Cole, Deacon and Lawes started. The inside backs/midfield in March comprised Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, Shontayne Hape and Matt Banahan; next time in Dublin it was Richard Wigglesworth, Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Manu Tuilagi.
I think the speed of the forwards - across the ground and in their recycling - is crucial to England doing anything notable in New Zealand. So I would rate Sheridan, Croft and Lawes as essential choices. The midfield is trickier. I applaud Wilkinson for his durability and his value as a pinch-hitter, an accumulator of points in a different class to Quade Cooper (currently buoyant Wallabies, take note).
But though Wilkinson is being tipped as a likely selection, I would give Flood one chance against Argentina to show that a mix and match combination of Wigglesworth, Flood, Tindall and Tuilagi can work, with Wilkinson on the bench. England simply will not start without Tindall for his defensive organisation although against my gut instinct there is a horses-for-courses case for picking the mighty Banahan between Flood and Tuilagi. But wait a second - no. When I think how Ma'a Nonu can pick a gap and a pass, as well as bulldoze in the no.12 jersey, I'll reconsider. Sorry, Matt, you will have to settle for giving Georgians and Romanians the heeby-jeebies.
So, the magic question, how far will England go? They have a luxury no other team enjoys: playing their first three pool matches at the same stadium, albeit a new and unfamiliar one. They know that winning the pool gives them a route to probably facing France and Australia, against whom they have won six out of nine meetings in World Cups. And it will also seem them avoid South Africa and New Zealand (against whom they have recorded just one win in seven World Cup meetings) until the final. It looks relatively promising.
Yet even by the sketchy standards of the 2007 squad that squeezed past Australia and simply terrified France into semi-final submission, this one looks short on star quality and bloody-mindedness. Those traits are most obvious in their manager (just a thought - how many of the other sides have a manager, by the way?) but that is not where you need to find them.
If history - or as we have seen, the most convenient bits of it - suggests you cannot write England off then I will have to say history is bunk. Perhaps the tactics of nicking a try or two, scoring 20 points and hanging on like grim death in defence will account for Argentina, Scotland and France but no more than that. And on a bad day if injuries intervene, it could turn out a lot worse.
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Hugh Godwin is the rugby union correspondent for the Independent on Sunday