Performances, not just results, should be taken into account to assess England, says Stuart Barnes.
Last Updated: 20/11/12 6:04am
Oh Well, only a few months and the Six Nations will come bounding over the horizon to the rescue of England. Exposed to the best teams in the world (even one as savaged by injury and absence of leaders as Australia) the myriad weaknesses of a team are exposed.
But back in the public house traditions of Six Nations rugby and it is win at all costs that counts and earns the applause. Stuart Lancaster's England won four from five in the wake of the appalling World Cup and that was pretty much universally described as enough to make the decision to appoint him an easy one.
A few siren voices cried 'performance' but the delirium of beating Scotland and Italy away (and they relied on Scotland to lose a game they should have won), combined with victories against an Ireland team atomised by early scrum injuries had Lancaster appointed with the same unanimity as Martin Johnson before him. The sirens screamed 'no' before that mad appointment too.
Beating France away clinched the deal when holding fire until we saw what Lancaster could do against the best in the world was the saner option. Since the Six Nations England beat Fiji (irrelevant) and lost twice to South Africa, drew with credit in terms of guts if not fluency of performance and lost to an Australian team they were expected to beat.
That is three losses and a draw. As appointments are results based where does that leave Lancaster's appointment? Two more defeats will, presumably have the supporters turning full circle. If winning was all that counted in the winter months, losing has to be the only criteria in the autumn. Five losses and a draw is unacceptable, no matter how formative the team...or so it goes.
I was not one of the supporters and my fears are beginning to churn inside as I watch England play as if it is the same field made for a different audience....Robinson's excuses, Johnson's excuses and now captain Chris Robshaw's excuses remain the same; failure to finish, inaccurate passing and the failure to understand the breakdown. New names and strange faces there may be but this is the November movie I have been watching for years.
The previous regime won the Six Nations and that fooled the fans and pundits who wanted to be fooled before the awful reality came home to roost in New Zealand. It would be a bold decision for Stuart Lancaster to state the importance of the next two matches rather than hanging on for the mediocrity of our annual bun fight.
Winning poorly against bad teams is a short term sticking plaster that does not heal the wounds. Winning, full stop is not the only panacea. But popular mandate has it differently, which places England in a horrible position this week.
Or does it? Winning bad is not an option. If England beats either the Springboks or the All Blacks they will have to do plenty right. Lancaster has a good rapport with the English press and needs to spell this out in advance of South Africa.
The management spends a lot of time in media relations. It is an area where they are vastly superior to the Johnson regime. They can still explain the importance of performance to an industry that sees things in black and white; win or lose.
It would have helped had England been a little more critical of the quality of some of their winning performances but never mind; the management can earn some leeway in some quarters if they emphasise the need for performance.
Performance required to win is going to require risk taking; more of a gamble at the breakdown where England are second class. They cannot become breakdown experts in a week but they can throw caution to the wind and attack breakdowns - attack and defence - in numbers. Against New Zealand this runs awful counter attacking risks but isn't the game where expectation of winning is least the best time to go for it? Lancaster can take a little pressure off the team he selects by explaining winning/losing is not the criteria to judge England by.
Risk to win
To reiterate: England cannot play badly and win. And they cannot play well enough to win without a little more pace to their game which derives from quicker ball. What England should expect is the team playing as well as it can; if it does that it has a chance against South Africa. It could play well and lose; for those of us interested in the realities of rugby power as it stands that, and not simply the points on the board is a major factor in assessing the direction England is travelling.
Lancaster should take some risks with selection. Alex Corbisiero should be thrown into the game if he is match fit; if not Mako Vunipola should take the place of Joe Marler who remains a player of potential but was taught a lesson by Australia. Joe Launchbury should and will start and against the Springbok line out. Tom Wood is a better tactical option than the speedy but lighter weight Tom Johnson.
Behind the scrum England have to use first phase ball to cross the gain line. They are playing too many phases which will be right into the hands of the next two opponents; especially New Zealand with their expertise at the breakdown. A mantra for the week should be as few breakdowns as possible; more gain line breaks, more first phase strike moves and a greater willingness to offload.Defeat does not have to be an indictment in the next fortnight; not having a go is one. If this England team is not ready to beat the best at least let us see some evidence it knows what needs to be done and progress is being made. Hanging around and waiting for the Six Nations is the prerogative of the Little Englishmen. For English rugby men, stuff needs to happen in the next two weeks.
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Morning Stuart, do you think that Charlie Sharples was shown up not to be of international standard on Saturday?
STUART REPLIES: Mark, There are a lot of players of whom that question could be asked, why pick on poor Charlie? He's definitely not the best winger in Gloucester and it may be that England bite the bullet and move the individual firepower of Manu Tuilagi to the wing for this week but that's not to right him off after an awkward afternoon. I don't think he will ever be a great international but he is a fine professional who will do a decent job more often than not....that first question was a bit of a brutal way to begin the Monday morning interrogation!
Hi Stuart, I know you have said that Australia were the weakest SH side but the boks have looked pretty average - they have ground out a couple of wins but surely England will be able to match them in the set pieces and handle the physicality we know is coming - the boks do not have the brains or the flair behind their pack like Australia do.
STUART REPLIES: Peter, England can win but don't underestimate the brains of Ruan Pienaar. Just as Nathan Sharpe had more caps than the entire England pack, the Ulster scrum half has more brain cells than just about all the England backs combined (Alex Goode is an honourable exception but lacks the experience and CV to be compared with RP) and look what happened up front Saturday.
In fact your analysis of South Africa could have been an analysis of England for the last nine years! We are currently a smaller and inferior version of the Springboks and will not win without doing a few things differently; a win is definitely possible but your fair assessment of South Africa reads a little rich coming from an England supporter
Stuart, Whilst Chris Robshaw is a good player and great captain, I completely agree with Michael Lynagh that he is not a number 7. Surely now is the time to try him at 8 and bring in Saull or Armitage?
STUART REPLIES: Neal, He was better in South Africa in the second Test than he was bad on Saturday. An openside does not play in isolation....just ask Richie McCaw. You and Mike may be right but it is the overall attitude to the breakdown and not whether Robshaw is a 6,7 or 8 that is most immediately in need of addressing. It is a nine year sore that has festered within the England international game (and we are pretty average at club level too).
Hi Stuart, After Wales' humiliation at the hands of Samoa I wonder if Roger Lewis and the WRU board are beginning to regret the decision to lose the best coach on the planet for 18 months to coach a team for a few exhibition games in Australia.
People can say what they like, but not having Gatland around the squad is obviously affecting performance.
Ask anyone in Wales (or any other country for that matter) what they would rather have, a Lions win, or a 6 Nations win, the answer is obvious.
There is far too much importance put on Lions tours (especially now they are no longer 'Tours' in the strictest sense) by the marketing men who see it merely as a revenue generating exercise.
It will mean very little to me if the Lions tour is a success and Wales find themselves in the 3rd tier of seeds in a group containing New Zealand and France for example.
I thought the WRU would have learned their lesson with Graham Henry, but now the country is paying the price for administrators not understanding the dynamic of the coaching environment.
STUART REPLIES: Chris, Some interesting points here although Six Nations glory suggests you are not that interested in winning World Cups. It is the here and now that matters. I think I would have shared your view and asked Gatland to stay exclusively with Wales but maybe the Lions (great kudos for a coach) was written into the contract. I feel sorry for Rob Howley who is not a Number One but that doesn't make him anything other than excellent at his day job. He is under pressure but I do not think Lewis will make a hasty and wrong decision. Gatland, as absentee boss, takes as much his share of the blame for Wales's woes as Howley.......
PS re the Lions; don't you think that in this age of grim faced professionalism the Lions tour retains a certain old world charm and yes, I know, the marketing men are certainly important cogs in the Lions wheel....I'll meet an awful lot of Welshmen who think differently next June; it has, after all, proved the greatness of Gareth, Barry, Benny and JPR in a way that the Five Nations never could.
Stuart, what do you make of the ridiculous one week ban that Adam Thomson received for a punch and a stamp? it seems that there is one rule for the All Blacks and one for everyone else.
STUART REPLIES: That was not a stamp it was a warning and the punch was in the same category. I'd ban the bloke on the wrong side of the ruck for a week. That'll cut out the niggles and speed the game up. If we all tried to play like the All Blacks (and I know they are not perfect or saints) then we would have a much better sport; you'll find no anti-All Black feelings in this quarter; Under The Posts is all for winning rugby that shows the game can be dazzling as well as tough