Plenty to ponder
Stuart Barnes says that England need more than a black shirt if they want to compete with New Zealand.
Last Updated: 12/08/11 4:40pm
Just an idle thought but would it not be wonderful if the English rugby supporters stuck two fingers up to crass consumerism. I am not that fussed what colour England wears but the decision to play their one home match in the striking new black kit seemed, how shall we put it, opportunistic?
New Zealand do not have some moral monopoly on the black shirt; it is not sacrosanct but England, famous enough for the white shirt and red rose, are simply cheapening the concept of national support by bringing the quick buck mentality to their approach; so much for the businessmen what about the more important men, the players?
Alas, there was no immediate magic in the donning of black shirts. They bore a faint resemblance in terms of colour and physique but in terms of rugby excellence there was no confusing the genuine All Blacks from the money making all blacks.
To win the World Cup England is either going to have to beat New Zealand in the quarter finals or at Eden Park in the final and New Zealand have forgotten how to lose in Auckland; a comparison of the teams leaves England light years behind.
However - and there always must be a 'however' because the scheduling of the World Cup for the Northern Hemisphere autumn gives a perpetual advantage to the Southern Hemisphere. As if being the better teams for most of the sport's history isn't enough! Whereas the European challengers have rustiness to conquer, the Tri Nations come into the competition honed off the back of their Super season of regional rugby and diet of internationals between one another. Injuries are an issue but far better to be bubbling near a peak a month from the competition than searching for accuracy.
The calendar is loaded against the Northern Hemisphere. This is not some European excuse. The history of rugby pre World Cups indicates that the Southern Hemisphere, in particular New Zealand and South Africa has ever been the best teams on the planet. Five World Cups out of six bear the old facts out but wouldn't a competition starting at the end of a structured European season and the start of the Southern Hemisphere's campaign be an interesting alternative.
It will never happen. Vested interests and all that but the point has to be made otherwise comparisons between New Zealand versus Australia and England versus Wales are woefully simplistic; The All Blacks will win the World Cup if they reproduce that form but having had a full season of Super Rugby and two internationals it would be a shock if they were nowhere near a peak. In contrast Wales promised a fit but technically rusty effort. They and England delivered on that front.
Ice baths do wonders for the capacity to train longer and get fitter and stronger but couldn't some of that time spent devoted into metamorphosing into super-humans be spent working on rugby drills. Wales has forgotten how to win quick ball and with the best will in the world, minus quick ball from the breakdown fifteen Hercules are not going to stop a half decent set of rugby players, let alone the genuine All Blacks.
Shaking off the rust
England was almost as rusty as Wales. The scrum was a potent weapon, perhaps even a match winning weapon although Wales, shorn of their best front row, were underwhelming in this aspect of the game. The line out was a decent contest without either side dominating while the breakdown was the sort of mess expected from teams who have not played for a while. It was inaccurate where New Zealand was precise; slow and secure while the All Blacks threw men into contact and reaped rewards of quick balls and gain line breaks.
Unless New Zealand is matched in this department they will win the World Cup. On Saturday the four Home Unions were playing at a feeble standard in comparison (I include the dreadful spectacle at Murrayfield). That is the bad news; the good news is that come the knock out stages the improvement should be marked. That is of course, if all the teams survive the pools. Wales have the Southern Pacific threat of Fiji and Samoa on top of South Africa, Ireland are being promised a tough time but Sergio Parisse and his Italy team (the small matter of Australia is their other key game) while Scotland and England has Argentina and each other to negotiate.
Think back to how dreadful England was against USA and then South Africa in the last World Cup before grinding their way to the final. These warm up games are early days still. The relative strengths of England and Wales might be slightly clearer after next Saturday's game in Cardiff.
What can we take from individual performances at Twickenham? That the Welsh captain and open side, Sam Warburton, is a fine player with an immense career ahead and his opposite number, Lewis Moody has been a fine player but constant injuries question whether his best days are behind him. He limped off the field in the 65th minute and the initial thought was 'not again!' Nobody doubts his heart and inspirational qualities but the captain has to be trusted to last a game. On form alone he has had scant opportunity to prove himself ahead of Tom Wood, one of England's players of last season. The England manager stubbornly refused to let go of his last captain way too long. His decision about the physical state of Moody could yet prove a major call ahead of the World Cup. If the captain is not fit for Cardiff he will not play before the announcement of the party and if that is the case how can his selection ahead of the Northampton man's be justified?
Elsewhere Jonny Wilkinson threw down the gauntlet to the current incumbent Toby Flood with a sharp and pragmatic performance, kicking drop goals, penalties and conversions and slotting Manu Tuilagi into a gap on the gain line through which he surged for his try.
That alone should have booked his place on the plane despite a few positional defensive issues. England lacks penetration in the midfield and need his option at the very least. Matt Stevens garnered headlines and indeed, scrummed well but he was not up against a great scrum. Still, he probably did enough as did Simon Shaw who proved he has an hour of excellence within him as he heads towards forty.
Wales need quicker ball to allow Mike Phillips the space to open up defences as he displayed in the 55th minute in the build up to Shane Williams' try. George North displayed high class finishing and Jamie Roberts ran a great line in the lead up to the well-constructed first Welsh try. Given quicker solid foundations at the scrum and James Hook to provide something different, Wales are not as far as some may think from being a decent side but improvement granted for both teams, it takes some imagination to see either winning the World Cup in New Zealand. The future still appears black in ways that are either positive or negative dependent upon your allegiance.
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