End of the Road for Martin Johnson?

And so the post mortem begins… Saturday’s poor performance against the French was just one in a succession of lacklustre showings and it begs the question; Has Martin Johnson taken this England team as far as he can?

It certainly isn’t the first time that Johnson has faced major scrutiny for his coaching ability since taking over the National side but this time it could prove fatal to his hopes of taking this current crop any further. At the start of his reign he was criticised for leading the side with a lack of invention, but in truth he was hampered by a lack of emerging exciting talent.

When he took up the post Danny Cipriani was the emerging talent of British rugby and Johnson gave him every chance to prove his worth both on and off the field but sadly Cipriani’s rather apparent shortcomings as a character and injury problems cut short any plans Johnson may have had to build an energetic and exciting side around him. Johnson initially received criticism for exiling Cipriani from his plans, but in time this has decision has become increasingly justified by a string of indisciplines from the former London Wasps man.

Since Cipriani’s rather fractious character blew Johnson’s first shot at bringing invention and creativity into the back line he has worked hard on enhancing England’s attacking threat and has made several very positive introductions. Under his tenure players such as Courtney Lawes, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Delon Armitage, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi have come to the fore as International players, which is testament at least to Johnson’s desire to make some attacking team selections.

Such introductions have over the past eighteen months begun to reap rewards and the victory over Australia in last year’s autumn internationals stands out as the prime example. This attacking intent seemed to carry on in to the 6 nations campaign at the start of the year, with the likes of Ashton, Foden and Youngs continuing to develop nicely as International players. Though this campaign ended on a sour note with a disappointingly tame defeat against Ireland, Johnson it seemed was beginning to win over his critics.

How sad it is then that England have carried the form demonstrated in the Ireland match on into their World Cup warm-ups and then the tournament itself. Finally it appeared that Johnson had overcome many of his doubters, finally it appeared that an England side under his tutelage had become capable of balancing attacking intent with defensive stability and a winning mentality but after a poor World Cup  the public have again been left to feel underwhelmed by his ability to take this team forward and utilise the potential at his disposal. England now appear to have regressed by a year to the period before the incredibly exciting victory over the Aussies at Twickenham, and sadly the World Cup has left a feeling that they are back to square one again in their preparations to challenge strongly once again on the World’s biggest stage.

It is in fact arguable that England have regressed further than just back to the pre-autumn international era in 2010. This is because of the worrying off-field actions of the players throughout the tournament which continued recently with Manu Tuilagi’s moment of madness jumping off of a ferry. He was rightly questioned by the authorities for his incredibly stupid actions and sadly it was just one of a long line of on and off-field misdemeanours.

How England go forward from here is very much down to the RFU and the post-World Cup review that will be headed by Rob Andrew. Andrew himself knows full-well that Martin Johnson can be a fantastic leader having played alongside him at International level and then having worked with him throughout his few years as Coach, but the question he must answer is whether Johnson is the right man to take England’s current squad where they need to go. It is not unreasonable to set a target of winning the next World Cup for the current pool of English players but if this is to be the ultimate aim for the next few years then Andrew must come to a decision as to who is best equipped to lead England to this goal.

Martin Johnson has spent his entire period of charge defending his strategy and selection. If this is to be the end for him as England Coach then his time leading the side in this capacity won’t be remembered as fondly as his years of captaincy. He has been fighting a losing battle in trying to emulate his playing achievements and sadly to this point he has come up short. Another consideration for the RFU may well involve releasing Johnson now with a view to reinstalling him further down the line when he may have learnt from his shortcomings and may have achieved highly in charge of a domestic club side such as his beloved Leicester Tigers. The future is very uncertain for Johnson and English rugby, but the RFU can be sure that they have an exciting squad in the making if only they are given the best guidance on offer.

 

 

Advertisements

Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.

 

Familiarity breeds contempt, and Haskell can’t bottle it up any longer

Another day another stuttering victory for England. Another day another bout of criticism, only this time it has come very firmly from within as well as from the media and supporting public. James Haskell’s frank dressing-down of England’s display was on one hand refreshing and on another entirely worrying. It is rare for a sportsman to come out and speak with such bluntness and clear dismay at the performance of their under-fire team mates so in that sense it was a strange and rather wonderful spectacle. However, the very thinly veiled harshness of Haskell’s message is indicative that much is not right within the England camp at present.

An angry Haskell felt obliged to air his misgivings yesterday

Usually you would expect members of the side and the coaching staff to support an unconvincing showing provided that it brought with it a solid victory, as was the case today. Whilst offering aid to the cause it is often common place to hear acceptance that things weren’t quite up to the mark but that they soon will be. Haskell’s appraisal of the current state of play though was far less sympathetic as he stated that they can’t possibly “win the World Cup” if things remain as they are, an opinion which was publicly shared by Martin Johnson. One has to wonder whether Haskell’s words were directed entirely at the on-field efforts given the difficult week that the England camp has endured under the scrutiny of the world and it’s wife in the wake of off-field troubles.

I think it is wise to steer clear of an in-depth analysis of the week’s off-field dramas other than to say that things clearly got out of hand. You would expect Martin Johnson to defend his men unless huge misdemeanours came to light and this was the case with his moment of tabloid gold in saying “rugby player drinks beer…shocker!” This was a defiant line designed to demonstrate his contempt for the ‘excessive’ media coverage of events but ironically it was lapped up like sweet nectar by the press. His message is understandable and there was a dry-ness to it that provoked a chuckle, but maybe given the furnace-like pressure amidst World Cup fever it would have been wiser to avoid such a provocative remark.

Anyway, moving on to yesterday’s match itself… It is fair to say that the game provided a little more optimism than the opener against Argentina but not enough to satisfy the doubters. There was a familiar pattern to the previous match in terms of the game being littered with errors and ill-discipline hence the frustrations that were vented by Haskell and Johnson. Though these are certainly issues to be dealt with before matches against Romania and Scotland there were at least some real positives to be taken from the game.

Ashton flying again?

In attack there was a greater intent and desire to move the ball through the hands, which is highlighted by the fact that wingers Chris Ashton and Delon Armitage shared three tries between them. Shontayne Hape and Manu Tuilagi in the centres were also given greater invitation to run attacking lines and this resulted in them each getting on the scoresheet as well. The increased opportunities for the back-line runners must be attributed to the greater urgency and distribution provided by Leicester half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood who were re-introduced as the starting playmakers in the line-up. Flood also must be credited for a stronger goal-kicking performance than Jonny Wilkinson’s against Argentina under the roof at the Otago.

There is certainly reason for ongoing concern given that yesterday’s opposition were considerably weaker than Argentina, but Georgia did play beyond their means and England did  manage to put forty points on them. The mistakes were again there for all to see and they were alarmingly similar to those present in the nail-biting win over Argentina, but certainly in attack there were signs of improved conviction and invention which should hopefully serve them well going forward. A tough week has now come to an end and England have managed to produce a victory with the always helpful addition of a bonus point for their greater assault on the try-line. Minor improvements there were, but major scope for improvement remains. The England camp will be praying on a quieter week this time around and with it a comfortable win over Romania should be achieved. Familiarity breeds contempt and the off-field dramas need to stop as do the indifferent performances.

Don’t Disappoint Like Our Footballers

In their World Cup opener this morning England’s rugby team looked worryingly as though they are suffering from a touch of the “Cappello’s”. The symptoms, if you needed reminding of our football team’s terrible performance in South Africa last summer, are a lack of conviction, a seeming lack of desire and the players seeming incapability of producing their bread and butter stock trades amidst the pressure of the World’s premiere competition.

One would hope that these rather nasty symptoms are not allowed to develop further and that Martin Johnson and his back-room staff can act as England’s immune system and bring them back to full health.

 

Today  was shocking, the players seemed inhibited and Argentina had them absolutely rattled. Fortunately for England, Ben Youngs’ introduction sparked life into the backs division as they managed to scrape a narrow four-point victory, but had Argentina capitalised on Jonny Wilkinson’s uncharacteristically abject kicking performance with some better goal-kicking themselves then they would have won. The sad truth is that they probably didn’t deserve to lose and England’s performance wasn’t anything like worthy of winning a huge World Cup match.

Having ripped into a lifeless display from England, here are some positives to take from the game. Number one is that they beat a decent side even when playing at pretty much their worst. Number two is that they didn’t appear to pick up any real injuries. Now I’m struggling… I guess some might argue that it was good to get a bad performance out of the system early on and learn from it in time for the next big test against Scotland in their final group game, but it’s probably best to not have any poor performances at all isn’t it?

Next up for England are Georgia and in theory it should be a walk in the park if they find even the slightest glimmer of their best form. Though the Georgian’s are likely to front up and demonstrate real physicality, the gulf in class between the two sides in attack and in defensive organisation should really tell from start to finish and a comfortable win should be there for the taking.

Following on from the Georgia game is a match up with Romania which should be another easy win despite their impressive showing against the Scots in the ungodly hours of this morning. A theoretically straightforward couple of weeks should ensure then that England comfortably cruise towards qualification for the quarter finals without much cause for further panic or hysteria. However, they must be aware of just how much a major scalp would mean to the minnows of the competition and must make some serious alterations following today’s deficiencies.

In the wake of their limp display today it seems likely that Johnson will switch things around in the quest to play some more fluent rugby and get two confidence boosting victories under their belts before the Scotland clash. It is more than likely that Ben Youngs will come back in after his inspirational return from injury and he may well be partnered by club mate Toby Flood at fly half after Wilkinson failed to impress with his usually metronomic boot. Other changes could see Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, skipper Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto return to the fold and if they all perform well then who’s to say that they won’t keep a hold of their place when the bigger matches come around?

If Fabio Capello had shifted things around dramatically last summer after a poor opening draw with the USA then perhaps he would have reaped the rewards as Martin Johnson will dearly hope to do in England’s next two fixtures. If the rugby team need inspiration to improve then they should look no further than the likes of Capello and Wayne Rooney who have endured very tough years since their underwhelming performances at the football World Cup. Though rugby is certainly a sport which receives less media spotlight than football it is important that England are inspired by the negative reaction to today’s performance rather than bothered by it otherwise they could end up on the receiving end of a serious barrage of abuse come the end of the tournament.

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

My World Cup Countdown.. My England XV

With under a month to go until the World Cup this is the start of my run down to the big kick off, and just in case you were wondering… I can’t wait!

I like many will be glued to my television at various ungodly hours the follow the fortunes of all the many gathered nations in Kiwi land, and hopefully I will be presiding over another nerve jangling but ultimately successful campaign for England. The men in white have done their country more than proud in the previous two gatherings of rugby world and more of the same would be very much appreciated.

If their two warm-up matches are anything to go by though then this campaign could be rather painful to watch. I must say I derived very little pleasure from casting an eye over the back-to-back clashes with the Welsh, but ever the optimist I will be putting this down to the fielding of unfamiliar and experimental line-ups that contained some players who won’t even be making the trip around the world.

Anyway, here is my starting England XV that I would take into the World Cup, enjoy and feel free to have your say.

Front Row:

Andrew Sheridan

Solid as a rock. Come scrum-time Sheridan comes into his own. I think the Wallabies pack are still piecing together their vertebral columns after the memorable shunt and grind dealt out this time four years ago in the Quarter Finals. His name on the team sheet might well be enough to put the them off their breakfast if they come face-to-face in the Semis (might be getting a little ahead of myself here..)

Dylan Hartley

On the field he is relentlessly nasty, naughty and a lot of fun to watch. The beauty of Hartley is his will to win which at times does boil over, but England need some mean machines amongst their ranks if they are to intimidate the Southern Hemisphere sides and Hartley is wired up for this challenge.

Dan Cole

The man is a work-horse. Strong, snarling and prepared to put his neck on the line, he really is formed of the ideal Prop-making ingredients. I don’t for a second profess to be a front-row expert but he seems to have the mental and physical strength to tough it out against the world’s strongest front rows.

Second Row:

Tom Palmer:

The Stade Francais man has blossomed over the past couple of years and has turned in some consistently commanding performances. He is a good option in the line-out and provides great stability in the scrum. One of the easiest selection for me.

Courtney Lawes:

He has started well as an International player and I think he is worth his place. Along with club mate Hartley he provides a menacing presence in the English pack and his mobility is hard to find amongst the world’s elite group of locks.

Back Row:

Tom Croft:

If Croft and James Haskell are present in England’s back row then it is likely that England will carry a major scoring threat in the forwards. Both men have an eye for the try-line and Croft excels as a suport runner and line-out target. His pace is outstanding and provides a potentially match-winning edge at times.

Lewis Moody (if fit): (C)

When he is fit and at his best he can be utterly immense. He is a great character and when on top of his game he is one of those players who can carry a team even through the most adverse of circumstances. More committed Test match performers are very much few and far between and I think that if his fitness remains an issue that England could struggle to demonstrate the grittiness and mental strength that strikes fear into the Saffers, Kiwi’s and Aussies.

James Haskell:

I am a big fan of Nick Easter and think he offers a great deal, but with physicality and athleticism more important than ever before I think it is time for a change. James Haskell got the chance to show what he can do at 8 in the first warm-up against Wales and he made a strong impression. He seems to have a real edge about his character and I think he is the man to counter the big, bad, back-rowers of the Southern Hemisphere.

Half Backs:

Danny Care:

Big call this one. After the year he had in 2010 it seemed impossible that aything other than injury could come between Ben Youngs and a clear path to the number 9 shirt in the 2011 World Cup, but for me he has slipped back to second choice. After an outstanding start to last season and a strong showing in the autumn internationals Youngs was well on course, but his 6 nations showing was of concern to me. I think that after a bright performance on the opening day against Wales that his form became progressively less impressive and maybe just maybe he has played himself out of what was his place to lose. On the other hand Danny Care used the back end of last season to inspire club side Harlequins to an against the odds triumph in the European Challenge Cup. He followed this up more recently with a good performance in the first warm-up game against the Welsh, for me he starts at 9.

Jonny Wilkinson:

If you need a big stage player then look no further. He has been there, done that and kicked a “dead-duck” of a World Cup stealing drop-goal. He called it that, not me… His form since a change of scene in club rugby has been impressive and it finally seems that the worst of his injury demons are behind him. In 2003 he was our star, in 2007 his return seemed to galvanise an apparently hapless England side and in 2011 I believe he should regain the right to be first-choice at 10.

He seems very happy in his own skin again and has such control over his emotions, I think he remains the cool head that England need to make them tick. Toby Flood has on the whole been impressive since usurping Wilkinson a couple of years ago but has a tendency to lose his battle when the going gets tough, Jonny is a safe choice, but for me the right choice.

Centres:

Manu Tuilagi:

For me he is a must. Purists might play the ‘he isn’t actually English’ card but the young Pacific Islander could provide a much needed spark in England’s otherwise rather robust back line. Recent England gambles on hot-headed and inexperienced young players seem to working out well in the form of Northampton’s Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton and maybe now is the time for Manu to set the world alight with his combination of pace, strength and sheer athleticism. If he does get his chance from the off then he could make a massive impression.

Mike Tindall:

Thought long and hard about this one but Tindall just about gets it. I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that England haven’t managed to produce a player of similar qualities to Tindall but with greater speed and imagination rather than having to resort to a player about seven years past his prime, but that is just the way it is. The fact that he is a captaincy option supports his claim for a starting berth and if Tuilagi plays then the newest member of the Royal Family could well be the man to keep the young dynamo in-check.

Back Three:

Mark Cueto:

Solid, reliable and experienced. These are three words you can certainly attribute to Mr.Cueto but ‘prolific try scorer’ is a three word title that doesn’t quite match up. He may be short of tries in recent appearances for England but he is strong in defence and possesses a pretty strong kicking game. As such he is a nice compliment to the more exciting and dangerous Chris Ashton on the other wing, and World Cup purists would love to see Cueto exact revenge for being denied the infamous ‘try that wasn’t’ four years ago against the Saffers in the final.

Chris Ashton:

Whether he is ‘Swallow-Diving’ his way over the line or touching down in more conservative fashion, one thing you can be sure of is Ashton’s unrelenting hunger for try scoring. His penchant for superb on the shoulder support runs has seen him explode on to the scene since switching codes and has driven him to be considered one of the best finishers in the world.

His form in the red rose has been just about as outstanding as his domestic form with Northampton since he made his debut. He simply hasn’t looked back since given his start in international rugby and if he is fit then he is probably the easiest selection of the lot.

Ben Foden:

Given their contrasting fortunes over the past eighteen months it seemed improbable that Delon Armitage could make a stab at ousting Ben Foden who in the aforementioned period was simply irrepressible. Whilst his form surged in the right direction Armitage’s career took a mini slump which resulted in disciplinary shortcomings, injury problems and ultimately just a lack of game time and form. However, the two recent games have highlighted a potential readiness for Armitage to return to Test match rugby and a somewhat indifferent performance from Foden on his return to the fold.

In spite of Armitage’s late surge, I think that Foden has done too much over the past two years and Armitage too little for selection. Ben Foden gets the 15 shirt, but keep your eyes on this one as Armitage is likely to get the chance in the group’s ‘easier’ games and may well impress.

Area of Concern:

One area of real concern for England must be the centres. Though Tindall was once world class he now lacks the pace and subtlety of the world’s elite in his position, sadly though there doesn’t seem to be a host of other options. As I see it we can’t continue with Tindall and Hape as our first choice in midfield as they are far too similar. As such Tuilagi got the nod alongside Tindall for me as the combination of these two blends excitement and freshness with familiarity and experience.

One interesting alternative though could be to select Wilkinson and Flood together in the same side, meaning that one of the two fills the inside centre role. In reality it seems unlikely that Martin Johnson will switch to this mindset so close to the World Cup and that is why I didn’t stump for it in my selection, but if given time I believe that it could work. Flood has experience at 12 for England alongside the likes of Wilkinson so it wouldn’t be an entirely alien concept, and it is one which people more in the know than myself are in support of. Aussie legend Michael Lynagh has gone public in his belief that England should use the time they have left to try this option out, but Johnson is perhaps too wary of introducing this at such a late stage.

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.