Reflections on England, Wales and Fiji, RWC 2015
Everyone could see that England should have won that game. And it’s not just that the England captain made a bad call when it came to the penalty which England could have kicked to tie the game. Perhaps that would have been a good idea, but really they should have killed the game off earlier.
The England team that won in 2003 was well-coached and Clive Woodward’s approach was effective. But mainly it was a great team all over the park. The back row of Dallaglio, Back and Hill were formidable; the front five relentless. You had Wilkinson making the right decisions seemingly every time, throwing long flat passes off either hand, leading the defence with some massive hits and, of course, making the kicks. Greenwood provided the guile. Tindall gave the crash stuff, always making game lines, and bringing the ball back. The wingers were good strike runners and Jason Robinson was something else –one of those very special players you only get every once in a while. This year, England has a great front five – and that includes the reserves, obligatory nowadays. They smashed Wales in the scrum and carried the ball well. The England back three is the best we’ve seen since 2003. Watson was dangerous nearly every time he got the ball, which against a team so well drilled in defence as the Welsh, is something impressive. May has had a great season and, despite some wrong moves now and again, he is going to get you tries. Enough has already been said about Brown – a nasty little nutter, who loves the confrontation and very rarely indeed lets the team down. They made a good Wales back three look ordinary in comparison, for at least the first hour.
The problems arrive in between these two parts of England’s game. Wales under Gatland are a boring side who play the worst kind of low risk, high confrontation rugby. They have lost the offloading game that made them such a joy to watch in the first decade of the century. It was a game developed because they were a smaller than average side and had to rely on few bits-and-pieces players to make up the gaps between the genuine talent. Graham Henry decided that the only way to win was to break up the patterns of play – forwards ran the ball, flicked out offloads, the backs danced and skipped round bigger teams. They avoided contact, and constantly surprised defences. Now they have the players, but as Henry said in pointed understatement, “They have so much firepower, but they don’t seem to function in attack as well as you would expect.” With one of the best crop of players Wales have had in a while, Edwards and Gatland have created joyless but basically effective rugby. Their front row will continue to let them down and there’s nothing much you can do about that except hope the brilliant Faletou can continue to dig them out of the hole their retreating scrum puts them in. Australia should do them over.
But England couldn’t beat them. Youngs made a fine second half break from a kick off but butchered chances in the first half when he made dull-witted decisions in the Welsh 22. Farrell was, as you would expect, ferocious in defence, and didn’t do a lot wrong as such with ball in hand, but there was nothing inspiring coming from him. To be fair, George Ford’s ten minutes included two wasteful up and unders when England needed to keep possession and some dodgy defending to let in the Welsh down the left to score the winning try. Yet Ford-Burgess-Barrett is a large creative stumbling block for a team with such potent threats out wide and quite a genuine desire to play some varied rugby.
England in the professional years have tended to favour the running scrum half over the player with the traditional skill set. Doubtless statistics prove that the impact players like Dawson, Care and Youngs can make, beating defenders from the base of a scrum or round the fringes, outweigh any negatives with the slight slowness of pass or wrong decision-making. I personally have always preferred a more purist scrum half – Kyran Bracken, Andy Gomersall and now Lee Dickson. I still believe in the importance of sharp hands from a player who is quick to every ruck and quick to move the ball away from the breakdown. Perhaps I am wrong to cling to such outdated virtues. But when you are struggling at the breakdown as it is, that extra half a second might be what is needed. And when you replace Youngs with Wigglesworth you are not really changing the kind of threat you are offering.
Too much has been said about Burgess already, part of it correct. Brad Barrett at 13, though, makes a rugby fan who grew up with Jerry Guscott gliding through defences, despair. His defensive work is outstanding of course. And statistics doubtless prove etc etc.
Every decent side in World Rugby these days has a match winning back row. England have three good, though not flawless, number 8s. Wood can put an OK shift in at 6. But Robshaw, gutsy though he is, is no comparison to Hooper, De Rouw, McCaw, Warburton, Dusautoir, O’Brian etc. England do have a man to match these players, a man who has been in the form of his life, but they refused to pick Steffon Armitage – not just while he has been playing at Toulon, in the South of France where he and Delon first got into the game – but also when he was at London Irish. Him and his brother were picked on by refs, by media, and by citing bodies in a manner that had a troublesome sniff of racism about it. The brothers gave up and
went back to France where Steffon won European player of the year. How England miss him.
A few days later, Wales were run close by a Fiji team, which was hampered, as always, by a lack of squad, lack of time together, lack of money. Clubs have not released players. Much of their native talent has been creamed of by the wealthier unions. It has been claimed, that 30% of the players at this world cup have some pacific island heritage. As with sex work, the third world produces much of the labour for this big money business. Is it surprising given the incredible brain-drain (muscle-hustle?) from these tiny, rugby-obsessed islands, that none of the big teams ever tour there? It is not in their interest for Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to profit from TV coverage and ticket sales to travelling foreign fans. The big unions should subsidise Pacific Island rugby for all manner of reasons – both ethical and sporting. It is not far-fetched to say that they could have been the dominant forces in world rugby. When you watch them play now, handicapped as they are, and remember how a few poor and tiny Caribbean islands produced the great West Indies cricket team of the 80s, you have a glimpse of what we as rugby fans are missing out on.
Fiji saw how Wales played against England and decided to do everything they could not to allow Wales to establish Gatland-Edwards patterns and systems. They weren’t far from pulling it off. That England, with all the money, players and home support they could desire, could not do so is not much to their credit. We all know what Lancaster was thinking when he picked a team to counter the boringly predictable Jamie Roberts-up-the-middle ploy that Gatland won’t shift from (I’m sure in a different team Roberts could offer more than just that). But, as they say, you don’t fight fire with slightly less good fire. You do what the Fijians do and side-step, off-load, dazzle your way past them. Where were Danny Cipriani and Kyle Eastmond to come off the bench (or to start, even)? Inexplicably, they have been left out of the squad. With a back row that almost always comes second in the breakdown battle and this creative block from 9-13, there is no way England can win this. At least Jonathan Joseph is fit again and Warren Gatland might finally retire after this competition.
 I owe this point to Virginie Despentes who makes the comparison with sex workers and boxers.