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WRC 2011: England v France Quarter Final

Did you see the England – France Quarter Final? What happened? Was it poor selection, poor motivation, lack of discipline, lack of vision, lack of tactics, lack of strategy or what?

I remember Martin Johnson saying in 2003 when they won the WRC that when you play France you have to score first and not let them into the game. He also said then that discipline was the key. The three studio based WRC winning Captains said that was the key to beating France too. It seems everyone knows that – even Captain Lewis Moody said it to reporters before the match. But did anyone tell the England players?

They gave four silly penalties away in the first quarter of an hour – schoolboy errors – and allowed the French to go 6-0 up, after which the French had their confidence up and dominated England totally. In fact, you could say the game was over when the French went 3-0 up, because from the French point of view and perspective they always seem to play as if whoever scores first will win the game.

Didn’t Martin Johnson remember his own advice about discipline? Or were this bunch of players unable to be controlled? We saw with the off-field activities they got involved in. There were some players that seemed to be on self-destruct. When Clive Woodward was the Coach and Johnson the Captain, discipline was much, much higher. Maybe Johnson didn’t like that and let his team get away with what he had wanted to do in ’03? I guess his future will now be in doubt as team coach: on his team’s performance in New Zealand it deserves to be.

Selecting Flood AND Wilkinson to play next to each other when they haven’t done so for 18 months showed a lack of intelligence in my opinion. Flood had the best kicking stats from the group phase, but Wilkinson has the reputation from 8 years ago, but he’s not been the same since then, or since his long absence through injury. Jonny seems to have lost it a bit. Flood and he both normally play in the No 10 role for England, putting them on together was too many cooks spoiling the broth. Maybe Johnson thought that two fly halves would make the complete package? He obviously forgot they could also make a “fly-whole”. A hole big enough for the French to squeeze through fairly easily to score two simple schoolboy scores, tries that broke soft tackles.

As for kicking, why did Johnson select Wilkinson for kicker and not Flood? Wilkinson’s kicking record this Championship has been, well, rubbish. Flood, on the other hand, has immediately improved the kicking percentages in every match he has been brought into from the substitutes bench. It may have been a wiser move to put Flood on as No 10 and move Jonny to Inside Centre where his game was pretty stout in England’s last match – and I thought that as soon as I saw the team sheet for the game. In fact I wondered why Wilkinson started at all.

Then why were Steve Smith and James Haskell left on the bench at the start? In the matches in which Smith played, he made an immediate impact on the game. Haskell of course may have been sidelined because of his public complaints about some of the other forwards not taking things seriously enough. Well, it looks like they didn’t because in the first half the English pack were lousy at lineouts and Matt Stevens gave away two penalties in the scrum in the crucial early part of the game.

Why is Lewis Moody Captain – and why do the TV pundits fete him so? I’ve never seen him do much on the pitch, but then I’m not a forward myself so maybe he does work behind the scenes I don’t see. It must have been a long way behind the scenes against France though as there really didn’t appear to be any leadership on the field when they needed it to settle them down. Sure, he’s got blond hair and is good looking, but you need more than that to lead.

There was a lot of tension on the pitch between different players who definitely were not comfortable either in the positions they were in, or with the people either side of them. With Wilkinson and Flood I got the definite feeling of rivalry working in a negative way. It’s surely the Captain’s job to sort this out, and to keep his players working together, with each other, not panicking like headless chickens as they seemed to do whenever the French ran at them when England had possession. Moody said before the match that discipline was the key, but seemed to allow it to be forgotten on the pitch.

Some of the players looked like they were trying too hard. The back play was scrappy and unrehearsed – or perhaps that should be over-rehearsed. They certainly looked like they had over-trained. Comparing the England backs with the French ones was like comparing The Hulk to Spiderman. Being too big and bulky is actually counter-productive for many fast men. Flexibility can be more important – and that is compromised by too much bulk.

It’s a trade-off really. Do you want to maximise power output (as measured by maximum weightlifting ability in the gym) or do you want to minimise resistance to movement thereby increasing running efficiency (and thus speed) and ability to subtly change direction when running? Did meeting Jonah Lomu all those years ago so scar the minds of the English Team management that they keep on thinking he’s still around? Another thing bulk does is cloud thinking by producing too much of the wrong sort of chemicals. Testosterone can cloud thinking and while they do increase aggression, you can take this too far and performance suffers. If a little guy has been bulked up by too much gym work, his metabolism may not be as able to cope with the extra lactates produced by his extra muscles. But maybe I’m thinking of those gym-gorillas who take steroids, and as far as I know none of the England team do.

Backs have to make tackles though, and the bigger the better, right? If that’s true, how come the slightly built French players burst through the weak English tackles with ease, while the big, bulky English backs couldn’t get hold of the slippery Frenchmen? The French tackling was completely effective; the English never really got “stuck-in” but seemed to want to indulge in high-tackles, arm’s-length tackles, and missed tackles. Maybe they didn’t want to break a nail.

Matt Banahan was the best of the backs in my view – but again, why was he left on the bench for so long? He was the only one who didn’t look muscle-bound – and the only one who looked like he could run. The only one who did run. None of the others seemed to be able to pass well, or to be able to catch the passes at speed. That’s something that can only come from playing together, and this line-up hadn’t. Backs aren’t like forwards, they aren’t as easily interchangeable. As the distance between players increases the margin for error when passing increases too – especially with long balls which were a feature of this game. This error margin can only be improved by getting to know your playing partners in matches – and through consistency of selection.

Johnson seems to not recognise early enough that he’s wrong. He picked Wilkinson because of what happened in 2003/07 and can’t grasp that Johnny is older and less able now; he also didn’t see that his team sheet for the match wasn’t working, and didn’t make any real changes until the last fifteen minutes of the game – too little, too late. He couldn’t decide on a team all tournament, every match seemed to display his uncertainty in selection. He never got a grip of the off-field activities, and was altogether weak and indecisive – at least in public.

Cueto scored a try, but even that was laboured and he nearly lost it. In the replays it was clear he could have scored by merely extending his right arm slightly to touch the ball down, but no, he had to roll over to the other side and fumble around until the ball scraped the line. What was he thinking? He wasn’t. It was almost like he didn’t believe he could get past the Frenchman holding his shoulder – and that was something that seemed missing from most of the players: they had neither belief in the team, nor belief in themselves.

Manu Tuilagi played well, but also made a lot of mistakes. He is only young though, and support from his team mates wasn’t there when he broke through the French lines. But as they targetd Ashton, the French had also targeted Tuilagi and so neither got a chance to shine. The French had done their homework – but they also performed really well on the pitch. Rougerie, Yachvilli, Parra, Harinordoquy, Dusautoir, Bonnaire, Vincent Clare, they all stood out as stars because they put the team first, not their pride – and they turned up to play Rugby, not football.

The game was lost in the first five minutes. When that first penalty was given away for a stupid schoolboy error within kicking distance of the posts, and the French scored, the game was lost. It was simply poor discipline. Either the English didn’t know the most basic rules of the game (not releasing, not rolling away, offside, entering a ruck from the wrong side and so on) or they didn’t think the referees would spot them infringing. The number of infringements the English team made in this tournament has been astronomical. The points, possession and territory they lost on account of this cavalier attitude to the rules and referees would have cost them many games if their group matches had been with better teams.

As it is, they’ve travelled half-way around the world and played no more than Six Nations level matches and faced none of the main Southern Hemisphere teams. At least Ireland can say they beat Australia. What can England say? They scored in a dwarf throwing contest? They’re a bunch of alcohol fuelled gym-gorillas? Or they’re a bunch of puffed-up, ill-disciplined prima donnas paid too much who think they’re Premier league footballers? Perhaps that last one is a bit harsh – I withdraw it. Maybe it’s all down to the leadership. Maybe the referees in the English League are too weak, or let too many infringements go by so the players get used to ‘professional fouls’. Not at this level – and that isn’t the spirt of Rugby as I know it either.

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