Expectations were set suitably high for England’s latest QBE Autumn International test match. Given recent disappointing yet optimistic performances against New Zealand and South Africa, Saturday’s encounter against Samoa was an opportunity to end a losing streak and provide inspiration for frustrated England fans. In one sense, this did happen: England won 28-9. However, the manner in which they did was relatively lacklustre and didn’t inspire too much confidence. I wrote recently about my annoyance at inevitable pessimism from the English media towards their national team and I refuse to be too downbeat here, but Saturday’s match really didn’t give too much to sing about. I’ll give it my best shot.
The main focus going into this week’s international was the long-awaited decision by Stuart Lancaster to start young prodigy George Ford at fly-half in place of Owen Farrell, who seemed to be irreplaceable until now. Lancaster was both experimental and conservative in simply moving Farrell to inside-centre; dangerous in that it advocated an entirely different style of play with two all-kicking, all-commanding play-makers in the midfield, and a tad safe in that it showed reluctance in just dropping Farrell.
World Cup winning coach Sir Clive Woodward has been an outspoken advocate of this positioning, and from the outset it seemed to work. Particularly, in the build up to Jonny May’s first try the combination worked spectacularly: Ford passed to Farrell, who had the sleight of hand to push the ball behind Brad Barritt’s storming charge back to Ford, whose faster feet and attacking inclination opened enough space for Mike Brown and May to scythe through. It was the type of play English fans have been yearning for, and the kind that will frighten even the All Blacks.
However, this accuracy and fluidity of movement was a rare glimpse of precision in an otherwise rather amateur performance. For most of the first half England’s game plan was apparently either not being put into place or simply non-existent. There were points when the entire English team were bunched in the centre of the field: had Samoa managed to turn the ball over, it would have been a simple matter of feeding flying full-back Ken Pisi the ball and watching him tear England to shreds. Mike Brown had fleeting moments of genius, but was found wanting for much of the match, and Marland Yarde, having been brought on twice to allow Jonny May to be stitched up, managed to butcher a significant try-scoring opportunity.
It was not just the conditions which hindered English dominance in Twickenham. Unnecessary decisions in key areas slowed their game down and encouraged inaccuracy
An attempt could be made to blame England’s inaccuracy on poor conditions; a curtain of rain had lathered the pitch prior to the match and frequented again partway through the second half, but this isn’t much of an excuse. Professional rugby players are expected to catch the ball no matter the conditions. Dave Attwood was a clear example of this: he knocked the ball on just five metres from the try-line, which marred his otherwise good performance.
It was not just the conditions which hindered English dominance in Twickenham. Unnecessary decisions in key areas slowed their game down and encouraged inaccuracy: early in the first half, England had a 22-metre drop out yet their captain, Chris Robshaw, decided to tap it across the line and run the ball. This was absurd for a number of reasons. Most pertinently, the opposition in mind were a group of Samoans, who are infamously giant and aggressive defenders; yet also, this was inconsistent with a game plan most suited to play in wet conditions, which is to kick the ball long and play rugby in the opposition half. Simple decision making gone wrong was characteristic of Saturday for English rugby.
Enough criticism for now: the score-line cannot be ignored and England most definitely won, outscoring their visitors by 19 points. Even better than this, they kept a clean sheet so far as tries go, completely denying the opposition a glimpse of the English try line. It was important to end a five-match losing streak, particularly having lost the first two internationals of this autumn series, and been denied a majority win under a year before the world cup. Signs of encouragement were evident across the pitch, particularly in the form of the aforementioned George Ford. The fly-half took full advantage of his first full test match and brought a unique attacking style to the back line. Such dynamism and clinical attacking intent has been lacking from England so far this series, and Ford seem to freshen the team. In particular, his pinpoint cross-field kick to Anthony Watson, who seized upon the opportunity to split the defence, was superb.
As relentlessly optimistic about England as I always will be, it would be impossible to end this piece without again mentioning the frustration that was so abundant in Twickenham on Saturday night
Given these signs, both of encouragement and criticism, it will be interesting to judge Lancaster’s decision making for the fourth and final autumn test against Australia. England have an opportunity to draw the series and must be shrewd in their preparation. Matches against New Zealand and South Africa were notable for forward dominance, whereas the shining examples this week were Ford’s dynamic attack and Ben Morgan attacking well in loose play. Both players should be given another start next week, as England looked more dangerous with them than in previous weeks. With a solid forward pack in front of him and backs ready to attack behind, Ford will certainly concern an Australian team on the back foot after a defeat to Ireland.
As relentlessly optimistic about England as I always will be, it would be impossible to end this piece without again mentioning the frustration that was so abundant in Twickenham on Saturday night. England did look dangerous in moments, but the majority performance was imprecise and lacking in direction. Speaking perfectly honestly, the most interesting moments for the crowd were the Mexican wave which circled the stadium, and the streaker who quite literally leapt over our heads towards the end of the second half. The nightmares are recurrent.
England won and all fans will be thankful for that. Yet the performance was not so encouraging: had this match been put to an opposition such as South Africa, or even Australia, then England would have been put to the sword. Work must now be put in place to push forward for next week and secure another victory, with the eye then turning to northern hemisphere dominance in the Six Nations. England did win but no-one would say that they’re back to winning ways.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackrhart
Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk