More Questions than Answers for England Posted almost 4 years ago

England are regarded as a conservative rugby nation, which may explain why they have been having problems on the left wing.

Other than Ugo Monye against Fiji earlier this month, England have tended to use players out of position on the left wing since then end of the Six Nations: David Strettle in the second Test on the tour to South Africa was the other exception, and even he is a right wing by preference.

England played Ben Foden, a full-back, there in the other two Tests against the Springboks, Charlie Sharples, a right wing for Gloucester, looked uncomfortable on the left against Australia last weekend, caught out defensively, and he has been replaced against South Africa on Saturday by another full-back, Mike Brown.

Having two full-backs may be handy for England with South Africa more likely to hang the ball high in the air than Australia, even without Morne Steyn, but there is something about the home side’s selection that smacks – panic and desperation are words that are too strong – of the selectors having more questions than answers.

One change was enforced with Joe Marler injured, but he would have been dropped anyway given Alex Corbisiero’s return to fitness and his own hapless performance against the Wallabies. Otherwise, the uncertainty England have shown this year in three positions, scrum-half, No 8 and flanker, persists, with a revolving door policy operating.

England were naive against Australia. However commendable the ambition they showed, especially in the second-half when they increased the tempo after a pedestrian opening 40 minutes, they were not adroit enough to extend a defence that was used to playing the All Blacks; their lack of basic skills eventually betrayed them.

On three occasions, they turned down the opportunity of kicking a penalty having fallen six points behind. Their one try, at the end of the first-half, came after Danny Care had taken a quick penalty, but given the rarity of victories by the home unions against the Sanzar nations, when has it paid to turn down three-pointers?

There was an element of hubris about England in the build-up to the Australia game. If most of it were media generated, there was also a perception that Australia were vulnerable, the weakest of the southern hemisphere’s big three.

Saturday’s tussle between the two teams who won the respective tournament of nations in the two hemispheres without losing a match, Wales and New Zealand, shows that what is passed off as strong in one can equate to mediocre in the other, and vice versa.

England got ahead of themselves, but not to the extent where six changes were needed, even if South Africa pose a different threat. When Martin Johnson was appointed the men in white’s (there will be no wearing of the plum duff change strip this weekend) team manager in 2008, part of his brief was to bring consistency into selection.

He eventually managed that and it was a policy Stuart Lancaster adopted initially, but since a creditable runners-up position in the Six Nations, England have lost twice to South Africa and drawn once, beaten Fiji and gone down to Australia.

They have been attempting to climb two different ladders, getting close to the top of one but stuck near the bottom of the other. They have talked this week about the need to be physical against South Africa, mindful of the way the Springboks bashed them two years ago, a week after a victory over Australia that marked the acme of the Johnson era.

England are not dissimilar in style to South Africa, placing an emphasis on the set-pieces, but their last success in the fixture was in 2006, 10 matches ago. Lancaster is trying to wean the England players off their club diet of attrition and grind (allowing that there are exceptions to that, such as Harlequins) and get them to be more expressive and reactive.

But until the club game in England starts treating the breakdown as a contest for possession rather than a means for the attacking side to recycle the ball, there will be more failures than successes against the might of the south.

The back row still lacks balance and if there was one fatal flaw in their game last weekend, even more than shoddy handling and passing, it was in the tackle area where a tyro, Michael Hooper, whose father is English, held sway. The breakdown is where it breaks down for England.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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