Out of ideas
Stuart Barnes says that, sadly, England must now accept their limitations at the World Cup.
Last Updated: 01/09/11 9:49am
I walked past a bookmakers on my walk to the Millennium Stadium from my hotel on Saturday morning.
The World Cup odds were being advertised on the street. New Zealand were 8/11 favourites (put eleven pounds on them and receive 19 back for a profit of eight pounds if they win the event), Australia were 4-1, South Africa 6-1 and leading the European contingent were England at 8-1. As for Wales, I got to Ireland at 25-1 and kept walking.
Good luck to any England supporters who dropped in pre-match and placed an optimistic 10 pounds on Martin Johnson's team. In my mind they were 20-1 to win the competition (each-way betting ensures they are absurdly overrated in the market) before kick-off. They are now looking like a 33-1 shot.
On the evidence of Saturday, Wales have more chance of winning the competition. Yes, England should have won the match three times over by half time but it was the nature of their display that left observers of a previously rosy disposition so concerned.
Post- match a few optimistic fans talked up the return of Ben Youngs and Chris Ashton but the scrum half has dipped every bit as much as Toby Flood since their brilliant displays in Cardiff in February. And we saw how Flood performed. Ashton has been troubled by ankle injuries through the summer. Will he be as sharp and will there be any holes for him to breach?
England's fresh ideas of last campaign were based (in attack) on the inside pass, with Flood releasing his back three into gaps between the fly half and the lumbering tight forwards. The injured Welsh fly half, Stephen Jones described the ploy as 'releasing big numbers on little numbers'. Few nations were prepared for England's excellence in this department.
But having been playing this game since last autumn, surprise, surprise, opponents are ready and waiting. Still Flood almost mechanically passed the ball back into space as England floundered.
Three quarters of the territory and three quarters of the possession in the first half and no tries. That is pathetic; the sorry state of an attack game that has nothing fresh to offer and has returned to the pod system where static players wait to take a ball one out from a breakdown before aimlessly dropping to the ground and committing no defenders left England looking bereft.
The net result is that Jonny Wilkinson is going to regain the fly half slot. England have run out of time to make their offensive game world class so they must accept the limitations of trying to stop others playing and squeeze matches through a pack that was deeply impressive at both set pieces.
Wilkinson is no Dan Carter as an all-round player but he kicks his goals, drops as well and makes his tackles. England lacked the feel for turning pressure into points in Cardiff; that is what Wilkinson does best.
The dreams of an England team mixing and matching their options up front and behind has (or should have) gone and it is back to the one-dimensional game plan for the World Cup.
The management is caught between the devil and the deep blue South Pacific. They have had ample time to broaden England's range and seemingly failed. They will have to go a long way - to the final - if the stark tedium of their style is to be forgiven.
If they attempt to play their way through the miasma before our eyes with personnel who, frankly, have clearly lacked attacking ability since Martin Johnson first selected them, and go out of the competition early, then the management has to be radically changed from the top down.
Warren Gatland is not used to the other Head Coach feeling the heat more than him, what with Wales' record being so poor in the last few years. They are not out of the woods.
Any other team who grabs control of a game like England did will not let them off the hook. The tight five delivered their back line shifting foundations on which to play. It is an indictment of England as well as a credit to Wales that they won this match with a losing hand.
The win stinks of a Pyrrhic victory until you remember that Wales have two props who - at their best - are world-class operators. If Gatland gambles and holds them back until New Zealand to ensure their readiness for South Africa, Wales have the personnel to shock South Africa. On decent footing the back line is a threat, especially if the plan that has emerged from nowhere continues to succeed as it did on Saturday.
Rhys Priestland was fighting for a full back berth before the match at Twickenham; after two composed performances as a fly half he is not only on the plane but scrapping for the fly half shirt.
He reads the game with the level-headed composure of his team mate, Stephen Jones but comes with extra speed and danger as a runner. He also kicks extremely well from hand and ground. Most of Wales would prefer James Hook, undoubtedly the most gifted player in Wales, to take the fabled ten shirt but he works well from full back.
His reading of the game means he is rarely found in the wrong place and while he would receive more possession standing at ten, it's the extra split second and half a metre that counts more for the quality he can stamp on the game than the quantity of his involvement.
Preistland's confident and aggressive game has altered the hand Gatland is playing. He might just have been proved one of those lucky generals with poor Jones's injury the moment Wales rediscovered their back line balance.
The way Hook carved through the England defence for the try from fly half on a multi-phase attack illustrated that wearing 15 is not tantamount to exile for Hook.
Another fascinating aspect of Wales' day was the selection of Gavin Henson at 12. The team has been hamstrung by Jamie Roberts in the inside centre berth. Big and strong he may be but the complete absence of a passing game has damaged Wales' ability to mix and match their game.
Henson is more of a classic distributor. He did well for the half hour he was on the field but it is more the selection of type rather than any of the celebrity hype that is so interesting. Wales seem to be changing their game going into the World Cup while England are stuck with their old model which all the world has had a good look at.
Instead of working out ways to win, as Johnson phrased it before the start of these World Cup warm-up games, his team managed to lose a game that was nigh impossible to lose given possession, territory and the fact Wales played 20 minutes with 14 men.
England - with Moody injured and nowhere near proving form - are in a parlous state while Wales, if the two props do recover (all bets off if neither is fit for action) with an outstanding open side and new captain in the shape of the impressive Sam Warburton.
With the tireless Dan Lydiate alongside him, Wales have a decent shape on the flanks and a freshness that gives hope where despair reigned when the Principality watched Samoa win in Australia.
These are still early days; remember how bad England were against USA and then South Africa in their first pool games in 2007. They made the final via the pack and boot of Wilkinson.
Those features are still in place but right now England are a long way from a World Cup final with a shortage of time to fix what has looked a mess since Scotland scared them at Twickenham and Ireland hammered them in Dublin.England lack direction, Wales a front five... the latter could prove the easier fix. Avoid the 8-1 friends, avoid it like the plague.
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Dear Stuart. Why are England talking of Matt Banahan as a utility back? Whatever you may think of him as a wing (for me he seeks contact far too readily, and until he picks his running lines late off the shoulders of the 10 or 12 when coming from the blindside, whether as a decoy or receiving the ball, he will continue to be ineffectual against top opposition), surely he cannot be considered as an international centre? His distribution is simply not of a centre's standard, nor is his reading of the game. On Saturday Delon Armitage on 77 minutes during a rare piece of England counter showed at least he can identify space and time a pass, which surely is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to play outside centre. When did the idea of Armitage at 13 suddenly disappear? Best wishes, Robert, Richmond
STUART SAYS: There were not many thinking of Armitage as a 13. It was something that this column vociferously campaigned for, but in his infinite wisdom I think Martin Johnson long ago opted not to read these opinions!! If Martin did, he would doubtless be infuriated by the constant demand for a centre who could pick running lines, distribute and identify space.
I understand your concerns over the validity of Banahan as a wing/centre, but if we are going to denigrate him for a lack of basic skills, it is impossible not to add the name Mike Tindall. Nor is Shontayne Hape exactly a bundle of creativity.
You are concerned that Banahan seeks contact at every opportunity, perhaps this is exactly what England like about him. When playing in the blue, black and white of Bath Steve Meehan and Ian McGeechan both had him offloading and picking exactly the sort of angles off a 10 that you bemoaned the absence of at the weekend. Maybe your grouch should not be with the big bath winger/centre, but the manner in which England coach him.
Stuart, I think I remember Will Greenwood saying in years gone by that Flood was more a centre than a fly half. Given the performances in the first Wales game, and the general lack of incision over the last year or so any chance of an England midfield comprising him and Manu outside Johnny? Regards, Bertie Foster-Ward
STUART SAYS: If Toby Flood isn't playing well enough to be 10 there is no reason to think he should play at 12. Wilkinson and Flood in tandem would not work because of an absence of pace and power in offence. For the same reason, Robbie Deans has discarded the significantly more gifted Matt Giteau as a 12 because Quade Cooper - a gifted, but lightweight 10 - needs somebody to penetrate the gain line and thunder in the tackle. Wilkinson does not have feet anywhere near as quick as Cooper and is not a threat as a runner, which means he desperately needs an abrasive 12 outside him.
Given the two former Falcons in tandem, the drift towards a lateral game would be almost inevitable if England play with the ball in hand. As it is, their back play is so abysmal they may as well pick a couple of flankers and just kick the ball in the air and chase when in possession and tackle like demons when they don't have the ball. With only three weeks until Argentina, the time for experiment has all but evaporated and it is with sadness that one reports England can only make a success of the next World Cup by reverting to the 10-man rugby that saw them to the final in 2007. In four years we have gone absolutely nowhere. Think what you will.