While there’s no doubt that ill-discipline and off-field shenanigans were the defining features of England’s RWC11, an awful lot of ink has been spent documenting these misdeeds and scolding the bold boys of St Boshingtons First XV.
While he’s as big a bandwagon-jumper and first-stone-caster as the next hypocrite, the Mole would prefer to take a look at where it went wrong on the field for Groovy Moody’s men.
The Loss of Big Ted
People love to run Big Ted Sheridan down: all the “He’s a powerlifter, not a rugby player” criticism, and the “He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes against Jeff Probyn” guff. The Mole’s take on Ted is an altogether more positive one. He’s an enormously strong prop who makes the England scrum a serious threat, and he’s an awfully big deal to try and knock down close in. The English pack with Ted in it is an altogether different proposition than an English pack with Tubby Stevens, Bunter Wilson or Margarita Corbisiero at loosehead. Ireland took apart the English scrum in the 2011 Six Nations game when Ted wasn’t there, but were man-handled in the warm-up game in August when he was back in the straps. The big lump gave Mike Ross more than he could handle.
It was shocking to see Wilkinson’s place-kicking form utterly disintegrate during the group stages. Firstly, nobody practices harder: complacency wasn’t the issue. Secondly, le Jonny brings his ‘A’ game to World Cups – he won it in 2003, and dragged the rump of the same team to the final four years later. How did it go so pear-shaped?
The Mole – yet again – doesn’t have the answers. Quel surprise! It shouldn’t go unsaid that things weren’t exactly peachy for other goalkickers either. Dan Carter wasn’t at his best, Jon Sexton was close to his worst and Pumas Felipe Contepomi and Rodriguez Gurruchaga struggled with the snow and rope adage.
One of the English hacks – one of the better ones – wrote that Wilkinson is an outhalf for his forwards, Flood one for his backs. Le Jonny kicks the ball over his forwards’ heads and off the pitch, allowing them to compete at a set-piece and then try and grind out a penalty. Normally, he’ll knock them over the crossbar all day, and the Sweet Chariot rumbles on.
The argument goes that Tobes gets the oafs to win the ball and then feeds his dangerous outside backs to break the line and allow the oafs to continue rumbling forward. The combination of forward pressure and threequarter line-breaks gives your speedy jessicas out wide the chance to profit from mismatches and get in their quota of swallow dives. Hooray!
It’s a bit of a simplification of how the two out-halves operate, but it’s not far from the truth. Now, when Wilkinson’s goal-kicking prowess mystifyingly disappears, his value to the team is greatly reduced. He’s still got the big-game temperament, but if you can’t score from penalty chances with Wilkinson, he’s not going to create a whole bundle of try-scoring opportunties … that’s just not the sort of outhalf he is, or has ever been.
Not really. HRH Tins-upon-Turnpike and Shontayne Hape added very little value to the No12 jersey. Tins had his off-field issues in the aftermath of the first gme against Argentina, and just looked very ordinary throughout the tournament. Maybe that’s who he always has been? His best rugby might very well have come eight or nine years ago, during England’s great run in 2002-03. More to the point, he might have been made to look a good bit better than he was because he was playing with Will Greenwood. It’s hard to pinpoint a really good Tindall performance in the last five years at international level, and it’s equally hard to get excited about the leadership abilities of a guy whose off-pitch judgment is so obviously p*ss-poor.
Last Charge of the White Orcs
Of this year’s squad, Thompson , Shaw  and captain Moody  were three players who played a part in England’s World Cup triumph of 2003. Moody has already announced his retirement, the great Shawsy has been playing international rugby for a scarcely credible fifteen years and Tommo – while doing enough during the tournament to take the white No2 jersey away from Dylan Hartley – must be on the last go-round. What makes their varying exits particularly noteworthy is that England have been struggling to replace them.
For the first time in a long while, the English pack aren’t a particularly fearsome unit. Shorn of Big Ted and Phil Vickery, Thompson was reintroduced to a somewhat callow and [for an English team] undersized front row to add some bulk and bite. Louis Deacon is a very ordinary player in the second row; his Leicester ties stand him in good stead with the English coaching outfit, but he’d struggle to make any other squad in the Six Nations, possibly with the exception of Italy. When you consider the roll call of quality English second rows down the years [Shaw, Kay, Johnson, Dooley, Ackford, Beaumont], it’s odd that such an ordinary player could earn the guts of 30 caps, most of them starts.
Tom Croft was a serial underperformer in the tournament, and injuries have begun to take their toll on Nick Easter. Easter is probably a little under-rated, because England generally play better when he’s on the pitch; however, bringing him in ahead of Brand Haskell for the quarter-final didn’t really pan out, and it might have a serious effect on the remainder of his international career.
So, what do England have to do to right the ship, restore some pride in the rose and get the chariot back on the highway?
Despite progressing unbeaten to the quarter-final, they have a bigger job than any team in the Northern Hemisphere. Their governing body is in an absolute shambles, riven with infighting, politicking and jobsworths clinging to power – and that is a direct reference to Rob Andrew, in case anybody missed it. They don’t know if their coach still wants the job, or if he’ll even be asked if he still wants it. Or who’ll ask him.
Members of their playing squad disgraced themselves off-pitch and represented their country in a way that would have seen the axe fall on their careers in the amateur era. Technical staff members were banned from attending games because of ball-tampering that crossed all the way over into outright cheating. They have big problems at just about every level.
It could very well be that Martin Johnson isn’t the right man to clean out the stables. The players didn’t seem to show the requisite level of respect for his light-touch regulation, the rugby they played in big games was excruciating, and despite the fact that they’re Six Nations champions, this is a team that doesn’t have any clear identity.
However, that’s not to say that there aren’t talented players in English rugby, nor that England cannot be successful.
However, it’s surprising that it is up front – traditionally the strength of English rugby – where they may struggle for a while. Dylan Hartley is a paper tiger. He’s full of yap against opposition players when he’s been put in the driving seat by his big props [Tonga'uiha and Mujati at Northampton, Big Ted for England], but goes into his shell in a big way against first rate opponents. The likes of Rory Best, John Smit and Bismarck du Plessis have all put him right in his box over the last season; with Tommo, you never get a backwards step. As Renzo Gracie once said, sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail. When you’re the nail, you’ve got to hang tough in there. Too often Hartley can’t stick being the nail.
Dan Cole is a decent tighthead, and at 24 years old, still a young man for a prop. The jury is out on Alex Corbisiero, although his best days are likely in front of him. Tubby Stevens isn’t the formidable scrummager that he was pre-ban, but he can play on both sides of the scrum. That’s a skill that will get you selected as long as there are still 22-man matchday squads. Bunter Wilson keeps the tuck-shop ticking over and is carrying a lot of podge. Given that nobody else in international rugby is carrying that level of flab around [he makes Adam Jones and Mike Ross look positively ripped], it’s likely that he could just cut out the third serving of pies and lose some blubber without affecting his game too much.
It’s in the back five of the pack where England are especially vulnerable. Brand Haskell is off to the Ricoh Black Rams for some p*ss-poor rugby and a big fat paycheck – just when he got his chance to stake a claim to the English No8 jersey. Timing, old boy. Timing.
Tom Croft mightn’t be getting any better than he is at the moment; he might have already peaked. He doesn’t look to have made significant improvement in any single aspect of play over the last couple of seasons. He’s still an excellent lineout player, but he’s not particularly effective in contact close-in, and England haven’t managed to come up with a gameplan that gets him running in space in wider channels. Tom Wood is a serious player who was underused in the World Cup and would be a definite starter were the Mole sitting in the hotseat. However, some people are talking about him as a ‘natural’ replacement for Lewis Moody on the openside. That’s wrong-headed. Wood is a pitch-perfect blindside, and if England continue to go down the route of playing a blindside in the No7 jersey [step forward Joe Worsley and Brand Haskell, the two most recent incumbents], they’ll continue to struggle against the better teams. That struggle will be even tougher because they’ll lack the set-piece platform which was provided by the likes of Shaw, Thompson, Vickery and Ted.
The Mole is a lot more optimistic about the potential of the English backline. Manu Tuilagi brings a huge amount to the team – explosiveness, size, physicality, pace, an off-loading game … he really is a serious threat against any team. Centre has been a serious problem position for England since Will Greenwood’s exit from the team in 2004, and a huge amount of candidates have been given a shot. In the last two seasons alone Riki Flutey, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, Toby Flood, Matthew Tait and Mike Tindall have started meaningful games, and it’s still difficult to pick their first choice combination.
Tuilagi has the skills and physical abilities to play either 12 or 13 – he certainly has the size to be a serious operator inside, and he has the pace and line-breaking ability of an elite outside centre. Now all England have to do is to find a player to complement him.
If he’s to be kept in the No13 jersey, the Mole would suggest that the player to play inside him comes from a shortlist of three: Toby ‘Busted’ Flood , Owen Farrell  and Billy Twelvetrees . Flood has a hell of a lot of experience for somebody of his relatively young age, Farrell is the coming man and a rock-solid goal-kicker and Twelvetrees has a touch of the Greenwoods about him – a lot of football in a rangy frame.
Lastly, George Ford should be in training squads as quick as you like. He recently picked up the IRB’s Junior World Player of the Year and is an absolutely first-rate prospect at outhalf.