Monday, 21 June 2010

Sorting the men from the boys

It may well be one of the biggest clich├ęs in sport, but…

….what a difference a week can make.

In Perth last week, England played as badly as I or anyone else watching has seen them under the management of Martin Johnson.

They were almost as bad as England in Cape Town on Friday night, but that is pushing it a little.

After feeling deflated, disappointed and totally disillusioned by the England’s performance against Algeria, Saturday morning totally revived my weekend. The way England beat Australia in Sydney for the first time since they won the World Cup in 2003 was unbelievable. Yes the performance was improved. Yes the rugby played was worlds apart from the week before. Yes the changes made a big difference on the field. But for me, the spirit and the heart shown was remarkable.

In all honesty, a video of the game should be shown to our boys in South Africa – that is the level of performance needed to win. That is the attitude to have.

It was like watching a different team. From the opening minutes there was this confidence that many argued was nowhere to be seen. All week, both the English and Australian media hammered home this idea that there was no ‘togetherness’ within the squad. The series of phases England built upon was vastly improved – the second try scored by Chris Ashton was truly memorable. Phase upon phase, patience and organisation led to an opening and Ashton helped himself. The first try was a moment of individual mastery by Ben Youngs. Will Genia is said to be the best scrum-half on the planet, yet Youngs glided past him and made Drew Mitchell look like a plodding front row forward. If he isn’t England’s first choice for years to come, Johnson is surely missing a trick.

And then enter the master himself and the man who came back to haunt the Wallabies yet again on the same ground where his drop goal won the World Cup, Jonny Wilkinson. His second kick at goal echoed the inconsistency his performances showed in the 6 Nations, but the first sealed the game for England.

Fate some would say.

Like the title of this post describes, I believe England's win in Oz demonstrated the difference in passion, belief and the drive to be successful that the rugby team showed. I love my football. I can't get enough of it. But you simply can't match what rugby players show on the field.

For all those who didn’t watch the rugby, I encourage you to do so. The team evoked a real sense of pride in me on Saturday, something that was missing Friday.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Chance to spill Wallaby blood missed

It may have been totally overshadowed by the World Cup in South Africa, but England’s rugby team have managed to cause just as much debate and disappointment as their football counterparts after their first test against Australia in Perth on Saturday.

Australia were well and truly there for the taking. England let them off scot-free.

The 27-17 score fails to tell the whole story.

England dominated the scrum, with two penalty tries their reward for maintaining extreme pressure on the Wallaby pack. The site of the Aussie front row popping out shouldn't be seen on an international stage - just ask Al Baxter and Matt Dunning. Australia must have been having flashbacks to the 2003 World Cup when Andrew Sheridan took the Aussie scrum to the cleaners and secured a semi-final against France. On that day, England built on their forwards dominance. They taught them a lesson at scrum-time and gave their backline the platform to shine.

So what exactly went wrong on Saturday?

From my point of view and in particular looking at the first half – ‘shoe-lace’ rugby is exactly what went wrong. Time and time again, the magnificent Mike Tindall broke the Wallaby defence and made it close to the try line. Time and time again, England panicked. Time and time again they failed to execute and punish the Aussies with points on the board. Speaking from experience, as a rugby team you focus on the visits you make to your opposing team’s 22-metre line and as a team you make sure you come away with points, be it 3 or 7.

As soon as England made it near to the try line with numbers out wide, a forward would turn quick ball slow and make Australia’s job of defending a whole lot easier. I hate to say this again, but from experience, defending against a team that is simply trudging one metre at a time at the base of the breakdown is easy to deal with – most back row thrive on it and when it’s slow and lacking of numbers, turnover time beckons. I counted 4 or 5 occasions when this happened, leaving a frustrated Chris Ashton or Mark Cueto screaming for the ball in vain.

‘Shoe-lace’ rugby – the reason England will never be quite at the level of Southern Hemisphere rugby teams. The ability to revert to a slow and predictable passage of play, ignoring any attacking options. From an early age, Kiwi schools teach young players to express themselves and keep the game quick and alive. When I think about what we were taught at school, it was tackle bags and rucking drills and if you did throw the ball around a bit, it was discouraged. In the end, we wonder why England is producing team after team that fails to develop, improve and compete with the New Zealands of this world.

The pressure continues to mount of Johnson. If only some of the current squad showed the leadership and commitment he did on the field, England would be winning these types of games.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Here we go again...

So that time is here again.

You know.

That sense of anticipation and excitement that is mixed with the dread of yet another disappointing World Cup exit. The underlying feeling that despite the optimism, you know you are going to end up heartbroken come early July. Yep. It’s back.

Seems like only last week that England’s football establishment was brought to its knees on a soaking wet night at Wembley against Croatia, washing away our European Championship hopes alongside Steve McLaren’s management reputation. Two years can make a big difference. Both England and McLaren have rebuilt, albeit the latter on foreign shores. The World Cup has arrived and after an almost exemplary qualifying campaign, the expectation of success has the English fans buzzing once more.

So, the selection. We are down to 23 and no Walcott. I saw him towards the end of last season at St Andrews and he was poor. Liam Ridgewell is an out and out centre half who has played left back all season for Blues and for me was there for the taking. Walcott made no attempt to take him on, stretch him or use his pace against him, making an ordinary Premier League defender look like a seasoned full-back.

What puzzled me was how can you justify Heskey and not Walcott. Heskey has hardly played in the second half of the season meaning he was selected based on previous performances for his country – if that is the case, Walcott’s single-handed destruction of Croatia in qualifying should have seen him make the cut.

However, for me the biggest selection headache is at left-back. ‘Cashley’ Cole has made it his own and does so with aplomb. What worries me is if he takes a knock or bumps into the wrecking ball that ended Rio Ferdinand’s World Cup, Emile Heskey. As Wayne Bridge ponders what could possibly turn out to be the worst decision of his playing career, Steven Warnock would fill the potential void left by Cole. That is where that sinking feeling returns to me. He is another I saw closely away at Villa Park towards the end of April and believe me, he is a million miles away from Ashley Cole. The USA, Slovenia and Algeria of this world may not strike fear into the hearts of Englishman across the land. When names such as Messi, Ronaldo and Ribery do, having an inexperienced and unproven defender within your ranks will guarantee a few nail-less fans by July.

Roll on the start of crossed fingers and tears. World Cup season is upon us.