Can Johnson’s Wisdom guide England To Glory?

England embark upon another World Cup campaign on Saturday morning, and for now the weight of expectation is surprisingly manageable. The general consensus seems to be that England are short of the mark in comparison to the likes of hosts New Zealand who kick things off tomorrow morning, and as such they are going in unfazed, but also prepared and ready to try and slip under the radar as they did four years ago in their defence of the title. Perhaps it is the rather surprising run to the final four years ago which should inspire belief amongst the supporters, but for now it seems that qualification from the group is all many are expecting for the time being.

Four years ago England went into the tournament out of form, low on confidence and struggling to settle on the right line-up. This time around things appear to be a little more comfortable for them having dominated the 6 Nations earlier in the year. Though this campaign fell short with a Grandslam ruining defeat to Ireland, the level of performance leading up to the fall at the final hurdle was very encouraging.

Flood and Wilkinson are set to battle for the 10 shirt throughout the tournament

One of the successes of England’s opening four victories in the 6 Nations was the role played by Toby Flood at fly-half, where he played a higher attacking line and fulfilled his role as a playmaking 10 with confidence and verve. Four games into the campaign Flood will have been forgiven for thinking that he was a nailed on selection for the first XV come the World Cup, but as today’s announcement has revealed he hasn’t made the cut and 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson is back at outside half. This turnaround in selection over the past six months is indicative of the highly competitive and hungry squad which Martin Johnson has at his disposal.

Other signs of strength in depth are also evident in Johnson’s selection for the Argentina match. Perhaps the strongest indication comes in the form of Delon Armitage who has gained a recall to the line-up at the expense of injury ‘risk’ Mark Cueto on the wing. Having endured a tough period in his career since an outstanding burst on to the International scene in 2009,  Armitage is back in England’s first choice Test side and though he is suprised to have got the nod he is determined to prove himself worthy.

Martin Johnson himself has admitted that Cueto would be able to play the match if entirely necessary and I guess his decision not to play him is testament to the reserve power which he believes England have in abundance. Something England have done well over the past couple of years has been to demonstrate versatility and flexibility in the face of adversity. The likes of Courtney Lawes have stepped up strongly when given the opportunity to impress and as such they have kept their places and go into the World Cup as first choice players.

Insert Lewis Moody Here...

So it seems that England’s strength going into the World Cup lies with their ability to pull together as a squad and fill in where and when needed. Whereas overwhelming favourites New Zealand and second favourites Australia boast ‘big name’ players with an ‘X-Factor, England’s squad is made up of more understated performers each of whom are interchangeable with the secondaries in their given positions without much damage ever being done. Martin Johnson is more aware than most of how you go about getting your hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy and it seems that his focus is quite rightly upon the importance of rugby being played as a squad game. If England are to spring a surprise and land a second World Cup title, it will be surprising if most of the squad don’t feature somewhere along the road.

At present it seems that England’s squad have found a fine balance of realism and optimism which should serve them well. I think the majority of the camp would be modest enough to accept that they perhaps lack the star quality of the tournament hosts but I imagine that they like Johnson back the depth and spirit of their ranks to rival any other side that they come up against over the next few weeks.

The feeling seems to be that maybe this World Cup has come to soon for England’s developing squad but young dynamos such as Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes will benefit hugely come 2015 if England go deep into the tournament this time around.

30 Man Game

Opening Round Predictions:

Group A:

Winners – New Zealand, Runners Up – France

Group B:

Winners – Enlgand, Runners Up – Argentina

Group C:

Winners – Australia, Runners Up – Ireland

Group D:

Winners – South Africa, Runners Up – Samoa

Good but not good enough for England’s Grandslam chasers

Saturday evening saw a disappointing climax to England’s 6 Nations campaign, but lets not get too down about it. Indeed, the Grandslam was there for the taking against a previously out of sorts Ireland side, but all in all to have won the championship with an injury-hit and inexperienced side is still commendable.

Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll scores

The absence of England’s Captain, Lewis Moody, and Vice Captain Mike Tindall cannot be underestimated. A nervous looking England never got the bit between their teeth and struggled for a foothold, whilst the Irish turned the form-book in it’s head taking to the field in barnstorming fashion.

For the vast majority of the game the Irish appeared to have intimidated their opposition, with an admirably high intensity level matched only by their skill and clinical finishing. It was a performance of such high-class and control, epitomised by the young outside-half Johnny Sexton. His seeming lack of composure in pressure moments and inexperience have been highlighted in his more recent outings, but no such negatives were apparent this time out. What a luxury it is too for the resurgent Irish to have the hugely experienced dictator Ronan O’Gara there to call upon as the more than able deputy. His ten minute cameo demonstrated all you need to know about the Munster-man; passion, composure and a touch of real class under-pressure. His deft prod to the corner with the outside of his boot in the closing stages was nothing short of sublime, and conveyed beautifully the ‘midas-touch’ possessed by the Irish on the night.

England were however crowned champions of the tournament and have reason to celebrate this. It is an achievement perhaps not of the substance with which Grandslams are made of, but commendable nonetheless. The defeat itself must be taken as the Autumn defeat to South Africa was; a learning curve for an inexperienced squad striving to ensure they are ready to make an impression at the World Cup come this autumn.

The signs prior to today have been positive; the closing out of tightly contested matches against Wales, France and Scotland, and the clinical deconstruction of the Italians. Have no doubts that this defeat was a missed opportunity, but it was as much about Ireland’s rejuvenation as an attacking force as it was about England’s lack of nerve. All teams have good days and all have bad ones. This performance in isolation was well-below par, but Martin Johnson will do well to reinforce the positives to have come out of this campaign.

The fly-half partnership of starting 10 Toby Flood and class-act deputy Jonny Wilkinson has provided depth and balance, as has the emergence of youngster’s Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero. Depth is so crucial when it comes to World Cup year and with the likes of Moody, Tindall, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Andrew Sheridan ready to return in the Autumn it seems England have this base covered. The only major concern for the England selectors must be the consistently anonymous performances of Shontayne Hape, and the lack of alternative options in the centres, demonstrated by Matt Banahan’s pretty one-dimensional threat in the defeat.

Ultimately, it has been a good couple of months for ‘Jonno’s’ boys and it remains to be seen whether such promise can amount to a higher level of consistency. Never mind the disappointment of not quite finishing off the job, they have been leagues ahead of their Northern hemisphere competitors over the course of the tournament and appear to have to edge over the old-enemy Australia in recent times. The jury is out over whether we can compete with the All Black flair and the power of reigning World Champions South Africa, but with the exception of their most recent showing, England appear a force to be reckoned with.

Big Weekend For British Sport; You Win Some You Lose Some

Isn’t it brilliant when things work out sweetly for you? Last week I salivated over the prospect of a big weekend for British sport and so it turned out to be. Furthermore, I put my journalistic neck on the line and predicted that would David Haye would dominate Audley Harrison, though I would concede that the outcome was fairly obvious. However, I am most proud of my foresight regarding English Rugby and the need for us to play to our strengths and let our youngsters fly. Perhaps a certain Mr.Johnson did indeed stumble upon my blog and take heed from my thoughts as I wished for in my previous post…

Our first big winner of the weekend was the Hayemaker himself. Such hype, such build-up and such hysteria preceded the battle of the British Heavyweights, which indeed ended up being as “one sided as gang rape” as Haye himself so distastefully stated it would be. It took Haye little over seven minutes to stop Harrison in menacing and convincing fashion. The fight started at snails-pace with Haye dancing around the ring and Harrison vigilantly watching on. But when the referee stepped in to tell the fighters to start boxing in the second round Haye set to work and crushed the Olympic Super Heavyweight gold medalist. Haye sent Harrison tumbling to the canvas at the start of round three with a torrent of fierce blows only for Harrison to regain his footing after an eight count. This resistance was short-lived as Harrison was seconds later prevented any further torment by the referee after another flurry of weighty connections. Many would argue that Haye should never have taken the fight with Harrison as there was nothing he would learn from the bout. He may be a hollow-victor in some eyes, but he is a victor nonetheless and clearly Haye was fighting to put some personal ghosts to bed.

Second big winners of the weekend were the England Rugby team. Not only did they win, but they won with a swagger unfamiliar even in the days of Clive Woodward and World Cup glory and broke their scoring and winning margin records against the Aussies. What England and Martin Johnson desperately needed was a slick, stylish and clinical display in order to get the critics off their back and boy did they get it. Such a transformation from the negative and sloppy outfit that lost out to the All Blacks the week before England looked like and proved to be world beaters.

Each and every one of England’s generally young and pretty exciting when given the chance side seemed to enter the fray with an entirely different and necessary mentality and it paid dividends. An unwritten rule of such performances is that the whole team were men of the match, however, one young man shone brighter than all those brave performers around him. Ben Youngs was simply magical. His ability to dictate the game from 9 was sublime and the genius and sheer confidence of his performance was encapsulated in that most glorious of moments when on his own try line he dummied and stepped before releasing the ball which found its way to Ashton on the wing and the rest is history. English rugby fans will take this performance into the remainder of the autumn internationals starting this Saturday against Samoa.

We’ve had the winners and now for the losers. Where else to start other than poor old Audley? The moment he has waited for all his career falls rather fortunately into his hands at the age of 38, it is against a man who he is emotionally tied too and his training camp went as well as ever. So what went wrong? Well no one can possibly explain why his performance was so dour. Why wait an entire career for your moment and only throw a single jab and not one of your famed big left hands. Surely Harrison has not only lost this fight but finally come to the end of such a disappointing career.

Other notable British losers this weekend were Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Admittedly both drivers needed an awful lot to go their way in order to steal in on the title but neither driver even forced their way into the top three drivers for the season. Hamilton in particular will be left ruing his back to back failures to finish when coming into the home straight of the F1 season, not exactly what is expected of a former champion. The composure shown by German Sebastian Vettel was worthy of that of a man who has now usurped Hamilton as the youngest ever F1 champion.

Final loser of the weekend of British sport was me. I placed five pounds on Haye defeating Harrison in the fifth round in addition to the £14.95 spent on seeing the probable end of Audley Harrison’s career. Seems that I should have staked my money on Haye’s recommendation of a third round knockout…

Another Autumn of Discontent For English Rugby?

English rugby has stuttered and stumbled its way through the years that have elapsed since their awe-inspiring battle through to the final of the 2007 World Cup. However, following the victory against Australia in their own back yard and the narrow, spirited loss to the All Blacks last weekend many have started to believe once more that England can compete come 2011.

On the contrary, I believe that spirited is all that can be said of England’s most recent showing. On the face of it a 26-16 defeat at home to the best side in the world is arguably a decent result but I believe that England blatantly lacked the sharpness, threat and clinical nature required to seriously worry the top nations.

All too often England resorted to the grunt and grind of negative forwards rugby, stumbling and stuttering their way up-field before repeatedly wasting all that effort when within metres of the line. Some would argue that the very fact that we were within striking distance of New Zealand throughout the second half is encouraging but in truth the All Blacks weren’t really on top of their game. Moments of inspiration were there from the likes of Carter, Rokocoko, and Gear as they always are when the Kiwi’s take the field but there did appear to be something lacking on their part. Surely when playing at home against a team performing a little under par a ten point deficit is not good enough, whether it be against the best team in the world or not.

English rugby sports the marvellous record of having won the World Cup in 2003 and having been the beaten finalists in 2007. In addition to this we have the richest rugby governing body in the world in the form of the RFU. These make up the foundations of a nation that should be going into every Test Match expecting victory, so why aren’t we?

Well the jury is out on that issue, but I would argue that currently our greatest strengths are our exciting young backs Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs. Last weekend they weren’t given the necessary freedom until it was too late and New Zealand were cruising to victory. This weekend against arch-rivals Australia we need a new game plan. We simply cannot afford to let the game get away from us before we let our talented youngsters fly and take the fight to the opposition.

Sadly I fear that World Cup Hero turned England Coach Martin Johnson is to blame for a three year period of inconsistent performances. If you happen to have stumbled across this Mr.Johnson, Sir, I implore you to give our exciting players the license to play with the freedom which they exhibit so regularly in domestic Rugby.