You know it’s a big game when the All Blacks aren’t playing but the New Zealand journos are still writing it up.
Chris Rattue, the excellent analyst for the New Zealand Herald, hit one of the best sentences so far in the tournament with his killer line about the England versus Australia match this weekend:
“The bookies have England as favourites but they are calculating with a hole in the head because England have a bolt through the neck. They are the Frankenstein of world rugby, a scientific experiment with an ugly result.”
Rattue’s super-entertaining assessment could be a fraction blunt, but it was speaking to the essential difference between the two sides, which is that Wallaby teams play running rugby instinctively, whereas England teams colour by numbers.
There has been an uncomfortable ring of the 1991 Rugby World Cup final about this week’s preparation, at least for England. That year, the English plodded through a series of dour results, only to make the final against Australia and start making attempts at running the ball.
They had the cattle at the time to play a running game – Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott were as good a centre pairing as world rugby has ever seen – but you can’t develop a style with a team over a long period and then change it and expect to win.
Indeed, after the ugly win over Scotland in that tournament, manager Geoff Cooke said of his team’s gameplan, “If England went out to entertain and lost, we would never be forgiven.”
Cooke’s comment alluded to the great terror always lurking below the surface in England rugby – the fear of being sliced up in the press after losing to a traditional enemy.
The English media is merciless. One can scarcely blame England rugby players for going into their shells when the pressure comes on. In Australia, a team which throws the ball about daringly and loses narrowly will be applauded for ‘having a go’. An England team which does the same, particularly at Twickenham in a do-or-die match, will be drawn and quartered.
Despite this, England maintain a strange insistence that they too, can play for tries. Mike Catt commented yesterday, “We have total belief we can go and score tries against teams. Australia love an open game, but we are also capable of scoring tries. Wasn’t it 25 points we scored [against Wales]?”
One never sees Australia desperately insisting that they can score five-pointers. It is a generally accepted truth that while the Wallabies may fluctuate in their forward fortunes from time to time, there is never any question that they can damage you out wide.
England’s ‘we can score tries’ line sounds awfully like the Wallabies’ ‘we can scrummage with the best’ line. Only the Wallabies, for once, appear to have the necessary artillery to back it up. The jury is out on England’s backs.
This is because, despite Catt’s rhetoric, most of the players that might give truth to the try-myth either aren’t in the World Cup squad, or if they are, aren’t likely to play. Whatever you might say of the shortcomings of Danny Cipriani, Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell, Manu Tuilagi and particularly Henry Slade, at the very least they would cause uncertainty in the Wallaby camp.
If Catt expects England to score tries, he has landed some fairly benign ammunition in Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph, with Sam Burgess on the bench. At the very least it should be George Ford at 10 and the exciting Henry Slade at 13, flanking the useful Barritt.
But Stuart Lancaster doesn’t know what he wants, and hence he has saddled himself and his team with the unenviable task of trying to beat Australia in a critical knockout World Cup match with its 18th different centre pairing of his three-and-a-half-year tenure. Just looking at that number brings about an involuntary shake of the head.
The most successful World Cup coaches are always good selectors. Bob Dwyer and Rod Macqueen both made early pick-and-stick decisions on players who turned out to be all time greats – Phil Kearns, Jason Little, Tim Horan. It’s impossible to imagine coaches like Dwyer and Macqueen, or indeed Clive Woodward or Jake White painting themselves into such a corner as Lancaster has done.
For his part, Lancaster is already copping it for his selection of the honest but unspectacular Chris Robshaw as captain. And as a result, he is getting a double dose because of Robshaw’s decision to go for the lineout in the final minutes against Wales.
Incidentally, there was no problem with making the call. Winning rugby matches always takes some degree of daring and verve. The problem was Robshaw’s attempt to emulate the great Martin Johnson and call the throw to himself at two in the lineout.
I’m certain that Robshaw decided to make the call because he wanted not only to win the game, but win some respect for himself. For a much-maligned player, doing his best, the vision of playing the lead role in a winning try must have seemed a duty that he could not ignore. Unfortunately, the effort came unglued.
Speaking of selections, the whole Sam Burgess thing is just getting silly. Why anyone thought that an NRL prop would make a good rugby centre is baffling.
Burgess has minimal footwork, loose-forward-level handling skills and moderate pace. He is a physical equivalent of Jerome Kaino or Schalk Burger but without the rugby sense.
To cite Sonny Bill Williams in the debate is to miss the point entirely. Williams was probably the most skilful league forward of the last decade, a large, fast back in a forward’s body. Anyone who thought that Burgess was any sort of equivalent needs their head read. Bath know the score – they’ve already declared that Burgess won’t be playing 12 again for them anytime soon.
So it is fair to say that the England backline is in a horrible mess, missing much of its strikepower and relying on an Easter Island statue for impact off the bench.
They are not to be underestimated at Twickenham though. Who could forget their 38-21 demolition of New Zealand at home in 2012? Unfortunately two of the main architects of that victory, Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton, were left out of the England squad entirely, further victims of Lancaster’s questionable selection nous.
The last piece of the dilemma for England, unfortunately again is Robshaw. In the lead-up to this World Cup, I bored several people stiff by repeatedly insisting that this tournament would be won by the side who dominated the 12 inches of space above the ball on the ground.
This is because the chances of scoring from the set piece are seriously limited these days. Quality defence is de rigeur. The best chances of scoring out wide are from turnover ball when the defence is not yet organised. This of course is the mission of the openside flanker – the fetcher, the jackal. His mission is to win it, spoil it, or get a penalty.
In this capacity, Robshaw brings to mind the Wallabies’ ill-fated Ben McCalman at 7 experiment, against Ireland at the 2011 World Cup. McCalman is a noted worker, as well as a quality ball carrier and defender, but as a jackal he is well down the pecking order. It was baffling that Robbie Deans considered him then, and it is equally baffling that Stuart Lancaster considers Robshaw now. Again, Lancaster has painted himself into a corner.
There is no possible way that the England coach can appoint a new 7 for this match because it would mean finding a new captain. As a result, he is forced to pit his uncomfortable-over-the-ball, 6-shaped skipper against the dual threat of Michael Hooper and David Pocock, who are both in rare form. It seems bizarre that two of the top sides – South Africa and England – essentially dismissed the open-side threats of Pocock, Hooper, Richie McCaw, Sam Cane, Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric at this tournament; England by continuing with Robshaw, and South Africa by leaving Heinrich Brussow at home.
This lack of balance in the English side, particularly in the backrow and the midfield, will unsettle their team. Mike Catt will very likely have to wait until the Uruguay game to see his tries scored.
And as a result of his strange selection logic, England coach Stuart Lancaster has placed himself squarely between a brick wall and a floor covered in wet paint.
Should England lose, stand by for him to be whited out on the team sheet.