Well Done NZ, but wasn’t it an underwhelming tournament?

Maybe I am struggling to detach myself from my rather futile support of England’s dismal campaign but am I the only one who has been left feeling a little underwhelmed by Rugby’s showpiece event?

As a result of our football’s sides apparent desire to ruin every second summer of mine, the Rugby World Cup has throughout my life as a sporting fanatic become my most eagerly anticipated sporting date on the calendar. As per, I went into the tournament with great optimism about what was in store, not necessarily from the perspective of being an English fan, but more about the competition as a whole.

Would New Zealand put pay to their seeming run of 24 cursed years on home turf? Would reigning champions South Africa find something from deep within to mount a challenge with their much criticised ageing squad? Would the exciting young Australian squad show why they managed to overcome an admittedly understrength New Zealand side in the Tri-Nations? Could the Pacific Islanders mount their first serious challenge for a place in the latter stages of the competition?

These were the main questions to be answered with regards the Southern Hemisphere, as for the Northern Hemisphere… Could England take their 6 nations form into the World Cup? Could the ever-mercurial French find their elusive best? Could Ireland find the form that saw them ruin England’s 6 nations Grandslam? Would Wales’ late 6 nations promise and exciting young back line take them towards bigger and better things?

All of the above questions were there to be answered and in the most part the honest answers would either have to be no’s and unconvincing yes’.

Reigning champions South Africa flattered to deceive with their unbeaten run through the group (not that it went without a hitch), only to lose out to an unconvincing Australia side in the last 8. The Wallabies who had promised so much in the lead up to the tournament surprisingly lacked a spark which many thought would place them in pole position if the All Blacks were to partake in their seemingly ritual choking act. As well as the Southern Hemisphere’s headline acts struggle to find their form, their Pacific Island representatives also struggled to impress themselves upon the tournament. Fiji barely showed up. Samoa performed better than their results might suggest but ultimately didn’t deliver, and Tonga shocked the world with a great win against France but sadly barring a miracle of epic proportions they were already consigned to the fate of a first round exit.

In addition to the disappointing displays of the majority of the Southern Hemisphere outfits, there have also been let downs a plenty for the Northern hemisphere. With regards England’s campaign I’ll keep it short and sweet. It were rubbish. Like South Africa they flattered to deceive with a 100% record in the group only to follow it up with a capitulation against the French.. ‘Nuff said really…

Having been drawn in a tough group alongside England and Argentina, Scotland failed to maintain their run of making it to the last 8 of every World Cup competition. Their performances were as ever committed, which is more than could be said of some of England’s, but their continuing lack of conviction and try-scoring potential came to the fore once again as they struggled their way to a first round exit.

In contrast, Ireland undoubtedly produced the best we’ve seen from them in a while but again failed to make it beyond the last 8. They progressed strongly through the group stage including a shock victory over Australia in one of the best matches of the tournament, but they fell at the next hurdle. They might count themselves a little unlucky to have come up against the form team of the tournament, Wales, but they again failed to push on into the business end of the tournament in what was quite possibly the last chance for many of their old-timers.

Ireland’s conquerors Wales were arguably the side that came out of the tournament with the most admirers. Their performance’s throughout were full of adventure, heart and incredible team cohesion and spirit. Their young back line fired on a consistent basis whilst their forwards, led by their brilliant Captain Sam Warburton, were also outstanding. Coach Warren Gatland had gone into the tournament with several critics for his failure to push Wales on from their Grandslam glory of a few years ago, but he has left as a national hero once more. His inspiration along with that of Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards encouraged the Welsh side to play with more courage, fitness and desire than any other side in the competition. Had they not been on the wrong end of a controversial red card in the Semi-Final then they would probably have been rewarded for their immense efforts with a place in the final against the All Blacks.

As it turned out though France were the Northern Hemisphere’s representative in the final, and in spite of their at times comical stumble through the competition they pushed the victorious All Blacks all the way, and on the day at least, they looked like worthy finalists.

In a fashion now rather typical of French rugby sides, they managed to overcome on and off-field disputes within their camp and a couple of humbling group stage wins to extend their stay all the way up until the final in Auckland and saved the best for last. A committed if not irresistible performance saw them battle back from the early setback of conceding a try, to a final result which saw them deservedly only losing out by a point. Captain Thierry Dussatoir must be praised for his man of the match performance in the final which inspired the rest of his charges to put their differences with eccentric coach Mark Lievremont behind them and concentrate on running the All Blacks as close as they possibly could. Though they just missed out on their first World Cup victory they once again put the frighteners on New Zealand who very much consider the French to be their greatest threat in World Cup rugby. For this they deserve enormous credit, but if their overall campaign is anything to go by then new head coach Phillipe Saint-Andre has an enormous amount on his plate.

In spite of the many tales of under-performing and under-achieving at the World Cup there were another side than Wales that managed to do themselves justice. Any guesses who? That’s right.. New Zealand. FINALLY, the Kiwi’s managed to return (officially) to the top of the International game after a 24 year World Cup winning drought. It is unbelievable that they have managed to go quite such a long time without winning the World’s premiere competition given their domination outside of the competition, but this time around they have won it again and not many could question whether they deserve it. Years of attacking brilliance and defensive strength have continually come undone as a result of one seriously slack performance every four years but this year’s crop of players have dug deep in mental and physical reserves to come up trumps on home turf. Without a doubt home advantage has played a huge part in their success over the past six weeks, but few would begrudge their triumph at home in the wake of last year’s tragic earthquake in Christchurch. Led superbly once again by captain Richie McCaw, the All Blacks performed with supreme confidence and solidity throughout the tournament and overcame the seismic loss of star man Dan Carter (excuse the pun). Of course the major sadness of their victory was that Carter had cruelly been denied his defining moment by an injury sustained in innocuous fashion during kicking practice.

Carter’s absence was one of several disappointments for me over the past six weeks matched only really by Wales’ unjust semi-final exit. Maybe I am just being a sinic, but the competition has this time seemed to drag on a bit. New Zealand and Wales produced some exciting rugby, but the majority of other sides in the tournament were well below their best. Maybe it was the greasy and windy conditions that caused most sides to play within themselves, but even the better matches in the tournament were tight, tense, low scoring and captivating rather than exhibitions of fine attacking rugby. Anyway, enough of my pessimism… Though I felt they weren’t quite at their majestic best, New Zealand more than deserve to have their mits back on the Webb Ellis Trophy so congratulations and good luck with your quest to stay at the pinnacle of the game over the next four years!

My team of the Tournament:

Tony Woodcock, Kevin Meleamu, Adam Jones, Lionel Nallet, Brad Thorne, Sam Warburton, Jerome Kaino, Imanol Harinordoquy, Mike Phillips, Rhys Priestland/Dan Carter, Jamie Roberts, Aurelien Rougerie, Cory Jane, George North, Israel Dagg

My Player of the Tournament:

Israel Dagg

 

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Can the stuttering French once again shock the All Blacks?

If France can only edge past a 14 man strong Welsh side by a point, can they really expect to beat New Zealand in ‘their’ World Cup on their patch? Honestly, it seems like a seriously long shot after their comparative performances in the semi-finals this weekend, but when the heat is on New Zealand have been known to choke.

History would suggest that France have been a thorn in the side of New Zealand’s World Cup chances, but this weekend has highlighted a greater mental strength about this All Black’s side. Their performance against Australia on Sunday was based upon mental toughness and a defensive quality greater than we have seen in a long time from a New Zealand side on the World’s biggest stage.

Usually the All Black’s are praised for their forward thinking rugby full to capacity with free flowing back’s moves and invention. Sunday though was all about the forwards’ ferocious appetite at the break down and the composure demonstrated by the backs to control the tempo of the play. The strength and consistency of the platform provided by the forwards allowed the backs to play simple efficient territorial rugby, pinning back the Australian’s and ruffling the feathers of their mercurial fly half Quade Cooper.

Nonu goes over for the game's only try

Richie McCaw in spite of his fitness worries led by example and was visibly proud in his post-match interviews. He knew more than anyone that his side had shown a lesser known side of themselves, a side which will have struck more fear into any side than that caused by their more renowned attacking genius. Not often have the All Black’s played with such nerve and cohesion in a World Cup match and Graham Henry too will be thoroughly proud of his charges.

In comparison to New Zealand’s clinical dismissal of the Wallabies, France’s lack of conviction against Wales’ fourteen men was alarming. Though they managed to initially assert their numerical advantage, the lack of spark, control and attacking threat from the French in the second half was far from worthy of a place in the final. However, by hook or by crook they are there and they will seek to upset the form book by once again inflicting a defeat upon the overwhelming favourites. If their big players such as Imanol Harinordoquy get their firm grasps upon the game as they did in the first hour against England then they do indeed have a slim chance of winning the competition for the first time and could prevent New Zealand’s official return to the peak of World rugby.

On paper there seems to be little contest though. Not only are New Zealand on home turf, not only did they beat the French with ease in the group stage, but they are almost without question the stronger side both player for player and as a cohesive unit. To put it in perspective, I would find it hard to name a handful of players in the French side worthy of a place in New Zealand’s line-up. The likes of Harinordoquy and Lionel Nallet would have a chance of a place in the All Black’s pack, and maybe you could argue that Dimitri Yaschvili and Morgan Parra (both as 9’s) would push Piri Weepu for his place along with Vincent Clerc or Maxime Medard on a wing but that’s about it.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the lingering doubt over New Zealand’s history of fragility under World Cup pressure remains like the unreachable itch on the spine and will do unless they are standing tall as champions of the World this time next week. The question on everyone’s lips is ‘Can the All Blacks bring to an end 24 years of hurt?’ And the answer is ‘Probably’, but maybe, just maybe, the French spark can bring the Kiwi’s to their knees yet again.

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.

 

 

RWC 2011: Saturday’s Quarter Final Predictions

England Vs. France

With an under-performing England side coming up against a French camp that is reportedly in ruins it is almost impossible to call, but I am going to back England to prosper.

In what is likely to be an error-strewn contest it is essential that both sides convert their chances with the boot. Failure to convert penalties into 3 points could be the difference between two nations which have hardly inspired confidence thus far at the World Cup. I think Johnson has picked wisely by replacing Mike Tindall with Toby Flood at inside centre as it provides flexibility for their back line. With Flood and Wilkinson equally as comfortable in the 10 shirt it could prove a very useful option to have interchanging playmakers. Wilkinson is praised for his outstanding defensive qualities at fly half and Flood is arguably more of an adventurous and threatening 10 on the break, thus they will have the luxury of switching between the pair in accordance with the course of the match.

The other major benefit of the Wilko-Flood combination is that they can share the kicking duties if needs be. Wilkinson has history with France in the World Cup and as such I expect him to shoulder the goal-kicking burden from the start. If he slots his first couple of kicks then I suspect he might well be back to his metronomic best and he could kick the French to death.

Though I do expect England to do enough to achieve victory it is utterly essential that they don’t get complacent. The French are arguably the most dangerous team in world rugby and at times they can be utterly devastating. If (and it is a big ‘if’) they manage to keep their discipline and get their set-piece working well then they could well cut England to shreds with their talented back line. They have mercurial talent in abundance in addition to some of the world’s finest finishers. If the likes of Vincent Clerc get the service they thrive upon then it could be a long hard evening for England’s usually strong defence.

Score: England 24 – 21 France (2 Tries apiece and England edging it on kicks at goal)

Ireland Vs. Wales

Two of the most convincing performers of the tournament will face-off in the early hours of Saturday morning. Ireland and Wales have both impressed throughout the group stages and have had notable performances against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Though Ireland actually achieved their prized scalp and Wales fell agonisingly short of their own crowning moment, I believe that Wales will come out on top tomorrow morning.

Wales have been outstanding in the group stages and perhaps deserve to have achieved a 100% record like tomorrow’s opponents. Their campaign started strongly with a painful defeat at the hands of reigning champions South Africa and has gone from strength to strength since. In world rugby a moment of great poignancy isn’t often as significant as the final whistle in Wales’ match against South Africa and the message that was immediately voiced by the Wales camp was that they would learn from this defeat and be stronger for it. It truly was a ‘make or break’ moment for them and it was yet to be seen whether they would live up to their admirable reaction to events that night. As it turns out they have indeed kept their word and have played tremendously well for the remainder of the group stage, with a fantastic win over the dangerous Samoans and then a crushing 66-0 humbling of Fiji. Inspired by their young but utterly outstanding captain Sam Warburton they have exceeded expectations and are looking like they could even make the final of the World Cup.

Ireland too have exceeded expectations. Their perfect record (including their outstanding win over the Aussies) proves just how good a side they can be at times and it will no doubt slightly frustrate their fans that haven’t come to the fore like this in recent major tournaments. However, it isn’t exactly the worst time to find your best form is it? They are potentially two victories away from the ultimate date with rugby destiny and who’s to say they can’t come good and mount a serious challenge? To this point their outstanding back-row have played out of their skin and they will have to again if they are to negate the threat that Wales pose and mount dangerous attacks themselves.

With both sides on the crest of a wave and really firing this could be a great match of rugby. I have Wales to win but it really could go either way.

Score: Ireland 23 – 28 (Both sides score 2-3 tries, but Wales hold on to win)

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.