England – where it all went wrong
Following Brian Moore’s wise advice, this is intended to be an analytical, dispassionate view in an attempt to assess where it all went wrong for England. I have counted to 10, lots of times. I have mostly managed to ignore the sledging of Australian friends and the smugness of the Welsh. I am calm and in control. Let me say first that England could have got everything right and still lost. Both Wales and Australia are top quality teams who will always present serious opposition to England, even at Twickenham. But there are a few things that England got wrong in their preparations; mistakes that individually seem small, but which together lead to a flawed strategic plan.
Get it right in the forwards
This is where it all starts; where matches are won and lost. If it is true that it all comes down to the last 10 minutes in tight games, then it is 70 minutes of bullying in the tight that sets up the platform for a win. Let’s look at the tight 5. The choices England made after Dylan Hartley’s suspension for the Fiji game were not logical. Despite his excellence in the loose, Tom Youngs is not an international class hooker. He cannot scrummage and he cannot be relied upon to thrown into the lineout with sufficient accuracy. And yet a strategy was built around him as hooker. This choice was backed up with a further compromise. Because of Youngs’ limitations at the lineout, his club lineout captain, Geoff Parling, was chosen at lock. Parling is a decent player, but England’s best lock pairing is clearly Launchbury and Lawes, especially in the loose. The choice of Youngs consequently weakened the scrum and the forward effort around the park in order to shore up the lineout. A better option would have been to go with the form hooker in the country for the Fiji game, Jamie George, in a game which England could be expected to win, and revert to Hartley for the Wales game. The risk of going into the first match with only two available hookers was low; indeed both Wales and Australia selected World Cup squads with just two hookers.
The balance in the back row has also been a bit off, but there is more sympathy for the selectors here as Lancaster did not have a great number of options. The problem is that England’s first choice back row, Wood, Robshaw and Vunipola, are all natural number 6s. Only Morgan is really a natural number 8 and there is no natural 7 in the squad. The only way around this would have been to pick Stefan Armitage, but that would have needed a change in policy probably 12 months earlier. England are not alone in this. Both South Africa and Ireland have players at 7, Burger and O’Brien, who are really a 6.5, and Robshaw fits the same mould. He is not a natural fetcher in the way of Tipuric, Hooper or Pocock. That is Ok. In 2003 England managed their game in a similar manner. Neil Back had ceased to be an out-and-out fetcher, and the role was shared effectively. England failed to indentify a proper strategy of how to get to the breakdown and clear out rucks. England probably were always going come off second best at the breakdown against Wales and Australia, but the selection strategy which compromised the scrum and the lineout made that a critical weakness.
Get it right in the backs
The debate about Sam Burgess seems to me the wrong debate to have. He played against Wales and played well, carrying for 40 metres, making 11 tackles and giving 2 offloads. The problem was not Sam Burgess, it was Brad Barritt. It is seems wrong to build a back line strategy around a player based on his defence. In 2015, it is unacceptable for any player at this level not to be able to defend, and so the focus should have been on players whose attacking game could make a difference. Barritt does not make a difference in attack. Barritt conceded 3 or 4 penalties at the breakdown against Fiji – fortunately the game was still won – so his defence was not smart enough, and over the three games he played, he carried for a mere 16 metres, getting over the gain line 5 times, and only made 23 tackles. It was, of course, unlucky that Jonathan Joseph was injured for the Wales game, but to choose Barritt after the weak showing against Fiji was a poor call. Henry Slade or Owen Farrell with George Ford at 10 would both have been better options.
Get it right on the bench
The half-back selections of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell were fine; indeed one of the great rugby thinkers, Sir Ian McGeechan, has openly supported the selection of Farrell over Ford. The case is to go for Farrell’s experience as well as the better defence and kicking game that he brings. The difference in getting the attack on the front foot is in favour of Ford, but not by much. However, where Lancaster again seemed wedded to a flawed plan was off the bench. Wigglesworth merits selection only because he can box kick well, a skill surely overused in the modern game. It was evident against Wales that when Ben Youngs went off and Wigglesworth came on, England lost a lot of energy. Danny Care is a far better option for energy off the bench and if you are playing Farrell for game management, surely you can accommodate a player with Care’s energy as one of your finishers.
Get the big decisions right
When you are 3 points down with 2 minutes to go, your kicker has not looked like missing a kick all match, and you have a precious bonus point against Fiji in the bag, and you win a kickable penalty, it is a no brainer; you kick the points and take the draw. In tight matches, the chance of pulling off a lineout move and scoring a try with so little time on the cloick, is far too low to take this chance. We all know what happened. Had Farrell taken the liick and made it, England would have reached the quarter-finals, despite all these other mistakes.
As I mentioned, there may seem small errors, but de-powering the scrum, compromising your choices at lock to shore up a sub standard lineout throw, building your backline strategy around a player with no attacking flair, and failing to have your most energetic options on the bench, together constitute strateic error which took the team down a wrong path. In tight games this can be disastrous.