What a summer of sport in Europe!
The drama and emotion of the Olympics and Paralympics didn’t just entrance a nation, but the world, and the improbable comeback by the Ryder Cup team was pure theater. Throw in an Andy Murray Grand Slam title and the stunning Tour de France win by Bradley ‘sideburns’ Wiggins, and the beginning of the rugby season was always going to be a struggle.
Except its a lot worse than anyone could have imagined.The Harlequins have at least tried to continue with their fluid style, although of course the lynchpin is the great kiwi no 10, Nick Evans. The rest of the Premiership have all been working out in the gym, but forgotten how to play proper rugby. Saracens for example haven’t scored a try in 3 matches until yesterday – how embarrassing is that. At one point during a recent match the entire back line was made up of current England Internationals and they scarcely achieved a line break
So what has gone wrong? Well take Bath for example – they have brought in 5 new coaches, three forward specialists and two defence experts. No sign of any creative influence there and it shows I watched Stephen Donald, playing at outside centre no less, kick the ball in open play six times in succession with runners outside him. To be fair, someone has put him on a diet and he looks fit, but even if he was intending to loop around in support you have to pass it first. I am told they have been instructed to kick the ball at all times unless in the opposition 22.
In general, the back rows get the ball in their little ‘pods’ twice as much as the flyhalves, the inside Centres hardly get the ball and it is so boring to watch.
This is all very worrying for England. My concerns about Farrell and Barritt have been realised and Tuilagi seems more intent on doing physical damage than creating space for his outside runners. Jonathan Joseph, the talented young centre from London Irish, has hardly seen the ball in a horror start for the Exiles despite their win at the weekend, and meanwhile at No 10 Toby Flood looks short on confidence.
The best 10 in the country is in my opinion George Ford, his understudy at Leicester, followed by young Freddie Burns at Gloucester. But Ford doesn’t get any rugby, being protected by his coach the spiky ex hooker Richard Cocker (remember him!).
There are some fine midfield operators around though, Trinder from Gloucester, Daly and Waldouck from Wasps, Allen from Leicester and a new name called Burrell from Northampton. They are either great runners or passers or both, but all these players are being stunted by crass and unimaginative processes. I won’t even call it coaching. What do they do with all these hours of training that they have – I know for a fact they do not practice skills .
Stuart Lancaster should be at the throats of the Premiership coaches. But he is on swampy ground, he admitted that his lack of attack skills as a coach led to the appointment of Mike Catt, who himself has as much backs coaching experience as I do (i.e. one season). Which is not to say he can’t be a visionary at some point, but its a risk .
People may remember England went on a search for world class coaches who should now leading the way in a call for more imaginative playing standards. But you need the moral authority. Lancaster, Farrell and Rowntree may be the local favourites and Mike Catt is working hard on his new found status, but they have to start laying down their stamp on the National Psyche, not just hugging the red rose.
There are some silver linings for the Autumn Internationals, we have some real competition for the scrum half shirt and our front row will be strong as usual. Far too strong for the Aussies I suspect .
Also, the Southern Hemisphere teams have so many injuries that however un-inspirational we are I can see us squeezing two out of three results, given that for all of them the next stop is the beach. No insult to Fiji, but they will already have one eye on Rio 2016!
By far the most important thing I will be looking out for is the approach England employ, build the midfield strategy and all else will flow. My lack of optimism leaves me totally ready for positive surprises… Perfect .