Ask the wrong question and you get the wrong answer. The media conference after England’s defeat to South Africa last weekend was dominated by one issue.
Why, when England, trailing by four points, were awarded a penalty with two minutes to go did their captain, Chris Robshaw, ask Owen Farrell to go for goal and not for touch?
Implicit in the question seemed to be an assumption that England would have scored a try and won had they taken the line-out option. Never mind that five minutes before they had done exactly that, driven a maul a few yards and then conceded possession at a scrum when the ball failed to come out.
Never mind that their line-out had been picked off by South Africa all afternoon and never mind that England had not scored directly from a driving line-out for more than five years. If Robshaw was taking a gamble on his side securing the ball from the restart with one minute remaining and mounting a final attack, knowing that a successful kick at goal would win the game, the Springboks’ previous restart had been caught over the touchline by Ben Morgan, resulting in a scrum on halfway.
Kicking for goal or for touch effectively made no difference: England’s chance of winning was small, the captain damned whatever he did, but the resulting brouhaha could not have kicked up more dust had Robshaw dropped a scoring pass one metre out in the final move of the match.
The pursuit of the trivial has become one of the noxious side-effects of professionalism, instant reaction and quotes of the sort that over the years have made it rewarding to turn off the television, or switch channels, as soon as a football match has ended.
There was, given England’s failure to beat limited opponents who were blighted by injury, a germane question to be asked about something that happened before the whistle sounded, in the first half rather than the second.
South Africa were turned over just outside England’s 22. The home scrum-half, Ben Youngs, picked up, moved right and had a one-man overlap to exploit. It was a typical November day in the UK, dark and damp, and England’s handling in the dry against Australia the previous week had been execrable.
Youngs kicked the ball downfield and the South Africa full-back Dane Kirchner dealt with it comfortably. A few hours later in Cardiff, New Zealand were scoring three tries, which all started either when they forced a turnover or when Wales kicked the ball to them: one started in a similar position to where Youngs picked up the ball.
Youngs, as he showed against Australia two years ago, is one of the English game’s more instinctive players, quick to sense when a defence is fragmented and a game destructured. He often takes penalties quickly and is, usually, quick to move turnover ball.
Since inspiring England against the Wallabies in 2010, his career has wobbled. He had been on the bench in the opening two matches of November and he was criticised by his Leicester club coach Richard Cockerill for running a penalty in the Heineken Cup against Toulouse in October when three points were on offer.
Youngs seems no longer to be playing the game as he sees it but through the eyes of others. In fairness to the England coaching team under Stuart Lancaster, they are trying to empower players and encourage them to play with their heads up and react to what is in front of them.
They are fighting against a club game which, with a few exceptions, is too prescriptive: the failure rate of playmaking outside-halves has been high in recent years and there is a lack of specialist open-side flankers in the Premiership.
There is a link: the breakdown is not seen as a true contest for possession, turnovers are rare and fly-halves tend to be traffic policemen. The Premiership did start this season with a blur of movement, but it had faded long before the clocks went back.
England face the masters of opportunism on Saturday. The All Blacks, never mind the weather or where they are on the field, thrive on turnovers and if ball is to be kicked away, it is not by the scrum-half or fly-half but someone further along the line who is best placed to assess options.
The question is when England, or more particularly the English game, recognises the value of turnovers. Until it does and (more) attention is paid at all levels to skills, what captains decide after a penalty has been awarded will be the subject of debate and censure far more than a player who wastes a prime attacking opportunity.