England must be more radical
December 3, 2008
England manager Martin Johnson has plenty of food for thought ahead of the 2009 Six Nations © Getty Images
Could the much vilified Experimental Law Variations be the reason for the southern hemisphere domination of the autumn internationals?
Graham Mourie, one of the great All Blacks' captains of all time, certainly believes they gave New Zealand a significant advantage in the game deciding areas against England last Saturday.
He has to declare an interest as a member of the IRB's Laws Project Group which came up with the experimental variations and is in charge of trialling them but this was not Mourie riding a political hobby horse, we were just chewing over the essential differences between the two teams.
'The All Blacks' forwards are better ball carriers and more aggressive at the breakdown, the backs are a touch more skilful and more confident - and that comes largely from the extra time they have had playing under the new law variations,' he says.
He does not see it as a huge gap and thinks England have the players to close the gap if they adapt.
It is advice England need to take on board quickly. Forget the perceived injustice of the refereeing, they were hard done by (Alain Rolland lectured incessantly to no effect - which is a damning indictment) but that did not affect the result, the two teams were playing different games.
England are still hankering after the rolling maul and trying to set-up pods of forwards to attack from the base of the ruck and maul. It is too static and too laboured - those days are gone and they have to accept that.
New Zealand forwards clear the ball out so aggressively they are able to feed a second wave of powerful ball carriers coming on to the ball at pace and then when the momentum has been created they can move the ball wide and all the attacking possibilities open up.
This is not to say they are always legal at the breakdown. I watched the game live and then watched again on tape and my first impressions were confirmed.
Richie McCaw and Rodney So'oialo are always on the edge of illegality and quite often cross the line but they get away with it because they are usually going forward at pace which makes the side entry much harder to spot. And they are never isolated - the support arrives , the ball is quickly freed and the referee is happy. The last thing he wants is to be accused of stopping the flow of the game unnecessarily.
Everything flows from there and now that Ma'a Nonu has emerged as the mid-field enforcer in the mould of the hitherto much missed Tana Umaga, the backs are once again a potent attacking force.
Graham Henry took some stick for persevering with Nonu when he was still in his wild child phase - trying to take on the world by himself and giving away far too many penalties with illegal hits - but he has matured magnificently.
He is absolutely massive - he looks bigger when he is dressed for dinner than he does on the field! - but he is now a disciplined defender, has all the handling skills and still has the pace to outstrip everybody from 50 metres as he showed on Saturday.
England have to modernise their game. They do not have a Nonu but there are plenty of young talented backs around who will thrive if they get quick ball going forward so it is the forwards who need a complete change of mind-set and the England selectors may need to take a leaf out of Wales' book.
Wales are the only one of the home nations who have been competitive during these autumn internationals. They were furious with themselves for not taking the chance to beat South Africa; they kept New Zealand on the back foot for half a game and finally got their reward against Australia.
Up against the same opposition England have been taken apart. You might point to some extra class and flair in the Welsh back line but in the forwards there is probably nobody so outstanding that Martin Johnson is thinking - if only I could call on somebody like that.
The difference is in what they are trying to do. Some of the emphasis in improving the Welsh pack has been on increased fitness levels - they are bigger and stronger than they were when Warren Gatland and his team took over - but they have also become much better rugby players.
While England are predictable and one dimensional as they try to set a platform Wales are constantly changing the point of attack by offloading in the tackle whenever possible and looking for space rather than a man to hit. Their success rate in finding support instead of coughing up ball has increased exponentially.
The front five England forwards - perhaps because they were used to being more powerful than opponents - simply do not seem to have the running and passing skills required under the new laws.
Perhaps that should be the first criterion when the new squad is selected in January. Johnno, it is time to be more radical. you need a change of direction.