A tale of fate
By Iain Morrison
October 26, 1999
On the basis that it's better to kick a man when he's down, well you'll never get a better chance. England coach Clive Woodward repeatedly stated in yesterday's press conference "It just wasn't meant to be". In fact the amount of times he said it could only be equalled by the number of drop goals Jannie de Beer kicked in dumping England from the tournament.
He is attributing England's loss to "the fates" when he should have been attributing it to something rather more prosaic. As "the fates" were the idle invention of the ancient Greeks who had to blame something for their calamities, it seems a strange place for the England coach to hide.
In 1991 England should have won the final, four years later they made the semis and this year they could only manage the quarters. That downward spiral is misleading of course, but for the first time in the history of the competition the RWC will be without a home nation just when the gap is supposed to be narrowing.
"Judge me on the World Cup," said the coach, so let us take Clive Woodward at his word.
In two attempts his side were unable to break down the determined defence of two southern giants. His principle mode of attack appeared to be Lawrence Dallaglio and his breakaway buddies. Richard Hill was the pick of the English forwards but even he seems intent on running into bodies rather than space.
Mallett had a wry grin on his face in the press conference: "South Africans are fairly useful at tackling so once they knew where to stand they were alright". Mallett knew that Dallaglio and Back would stay wide so he ensured his defenders did likewise.
I may be wrong but I don't recall either England fly-half chipping over the flat defence or putting a diagonal grubber through the opposition backs that numbers 11,13 or 14 would have had a realistic chance of recovering. For the Springboks De Beer came within a fraction of scoring a try when he just failed to collect his own chip kick at the death of the first half. Even Bobby Skinstad attempted the ploy twice.
The English players have caught the Southern Hemisphere up in terms of physique but not in terms of handling skills or tactics. To use one illustration, Neil Back's limitations were repeatedly highlighted as, being smaller than the opposition, he will usually go to ground to form a ruck rather than risk being turned. Sometimes this is necessary but unless the ball is recycled quickly it is useless. More importantly many rucks must be seen as a failure. It means that support players are not in position to receive the ball or that the player with the ball, and this is the key, is not sufficiently confident about his handling abilities to get the ball away under pressure.
In England's two games against the big guns we had the perfect illustration of both these points. There is a lack of variety from the backs and all players are over-eager to hit the deck at the first sign of the opposition. This is necessary at times but there are occasions when it is simply the easier option. If a player can stand up in the tackle and off-load the ball they would stand a better chance of breaking that first line of defence. Will Greenwood normally excels in this but he was disappointing on Sunday.
Matt Dawson is an honourable exception to any criticism as he constantly attempted to raise the ante and, when he came on, Jonny Wilkinson also tried hard to open up the game. Although by that time England was fast running out of alternatives. Matt Perry was sparked into action by the Boks first try but he had been more guilty than most of what Woodward dubbed "ping-pong"; well he was half right.
Rather than play the running game, which Woodward has preached and practised, his players got bogged down in a kicking duel that, according to Woodward again, "just developed". Surely the point is that it didn't have to, there was nothing pre-determined about it.
Woodward stated post-match, "I'm pleased with my players, they've done everything they possibly could". Not true Clive, your players tried as hard as they possibly could, which is not the same thing. They took a sledgehammer to crack a few hard nuts and when that failed they had precious little by way of plan B let alone C or D. Woodward claimed, "we threw the kitchen sink at them". Well yes England did, but South Arfica threw it right back again. There is surely more than one way to skin a Springbok?
Clive Woodward was undecided about his future but would only say: "A lot can happen between now and the next round of (international) matches. I'm big enough to look after myself". For much the same reasons that England should stick with their young fly-half Wilkinson, I suspect that they should stick with Woodward. Both are somewhere on the learning curve and both a little further up now than they were a month ago.