THE ART OF BEING SMART – COACHES EVERYWHERE UNDER SPOTLIGHT IN RWC LEAD UP
I am loving the pre RWC banter as the Autumn Internationals play out their rather subdued tone. The media have been feeding on the various soundbites from all the main contenders. Much of the impact is psychological but we are finding that it can be disproportionate. It has amazed me that some commentators have set unrealistic targets for England and are as a result now panicking.
Elsewhere, no-one has batted an eyelid that Wales has for the umpteenth time lost to Australia in the last few minutes of the game, or struggled past a combative Fiji, although the final 10 minutes against the All Blacks must raise some concerns amongst the Welsh coaching staff and faithful. Warren Gatland has passed off these pre-Christmas contests as part of the preparation, and to be sure all he cares about is getting Wales out of the pool stages, so he has only two games in his mind right now .
Ireland has emerged as the new dark horses for the World Cup. Their traditional provincial strength seems at last to be translating into national performance. Long may it continue and Joe Schmidt seems to have inspired a nation. We may not have forgotten Brian O’Driscoll but Johnny Sexton has been liberated, and his tactical brain is a priceless commodity. Arguably, he alone took down the unthinking brawn of the Springboks. The men form the Emerald Isle have no PR and are quietly going about their business – mindful of their near miss in the 1991 World Cup when they should had been semifinalists. We are still waiting for the next coming. Perhaps this is the time .
Scotland is the surprise package and I feel that one of the Six Nations teams could get a thumping from them. Glasgow’s European Cup performances so far have given an indication and just perhaps there is a revival coming – I welcome it if so but there’s not enough experience to make a World Cup dent. Vern Cotter has however effected immediate improvement – amazing how some positive attitude can turn potential into actual performance.
Before I come to England, a somewhat maverick and dysfunctional contender right now, I have to pay tribute to the Southern Hemisphere teams. It’s been a long season and their coaches have eked out enough quality to get them over the line in most cases. Their levels of experience are paying dividends and as we know its a fine line at the top of the game, as it is in every sport .
So whats gone wrong with England? Or are we simply indulging in a good old English whinge about poor short term results? I think there are three main points:
1. Why on earth did we state that we needed to win all four Autumn games? It set an unrealistic level of expectation. International teams try to win EVERY match and that’s it. I remember Andy Robinson predicted a Grand Slam after he took over an ageing and demotivated squad of World Cup Champions in 2004. It was never going to happen. I do think that we have lost momentum, but you cannot get hung up on statistics.
2. Stuart Lancaster and his selectors STILL have no defined attacking strategy after three years of trying. It’s embarrassing and is probably the reason why so many wings have been tried out and dropped , alongside a number of dysfunctional centre pairings. Lancaster has not been helped by injuries for sure but it’s the case that we have a pack which is capable of challenging the world’s best in the tight. However, as Jean de Villiers the Springboks captain pointed out, the real point scoring opportunities come from turnovers, counterattacks and great decision-making. Percentage of territory and possession means nothing, as England have found out. I ask the question, what are our coaches asking the players to do on the pitch? It’s not obvious.
3. It was pleasing to see George Ford given an opportunity against Samoa. There are however, increasing questions about selection, in particular Lancaster’s apparent blindspot over Owen Farrell, as well as a number of changes of heart over certain backs – admittedly sometimes brought on by injuries as well as lack of form. This was always going to be a testing time for the coaching team. The recovery from the depths of 2011 has been a straight line and not really that complicated but a ceiling has been hit. This is where people ask questions about the small margins of improvement which can be achieved by world class coaching – let us not forget that there was an option to have Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith alongside Lancaster. Smith is the world’s best backs coach and would have ironed out any issues by now. Mallett has demanded excellence all his coaching career and has clear pedigree. There will be growing concerns that RWC 2015 is a bridge too far for what is still an inexperienced group. However,the selection committee of Ian Ritchie, Ian McGeechan, Rob Andrew, Conor O’Shea and Richard Hill made their choice with eyes open and after some deliberation. Moreover, there is limited point right now in looking back because decisions have been made and we have a tournament to win so we must back them. I certainly do as an optimistic Englishman.
No one wins a World cup a year before the event despite the precedent of the 2003 England team who, in case we forget, blew three Grand Slams in a row before their world dominance – the All Blacks have dismissed the relevance of early pointers and they should know. They after all went out in successive World Cups despite favourite status, and England reached a final in 2007 having been demolished by SA in the pool game. My England team of 1991 reached a World Cup Final – which we should have won – after being thrashed by Australia in the summer and losing to the All Blacks in the pool stages. So it can be done – you just have to reach a final and it’s anyone’s game. Arguably France should have won the World Cup in 2011.
However time is running out – not because we are only ten matches away but because we still can’t find a functioning midfield. England must declare its first choice trio, stick with them and lay down a tactical marker which can feed some very rapid wings and capitalise on the good work of our tight forwards. I have placed my choices in a sealed envelope, only to be opened on the day of the Final!
It’s smart play and smart coaching which are required. We watch and wait.