England made it two out of two in Italy, but Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson is gobsmacked that they had to do it without anyone really being able to see the ball!
So the weather was the primary winner on Saturday as it claimed the France versus Ireland match and reduced England’s second successive away victory to something of an unseemly scramble against Italy in Rome. Since when has The Eternal City been engulfed by snow, even in February? But the fact that one match was played and another cancelled does start you thinking about when and how games are deemed fit to be played or otherwise. Italy v England wasn’t much of a spectacle, but there’s no doubt in my mind that all of the 72,000 people huddled into the Stadio Olimpico would have preferred to watch any kind of game than be forced to traipse off home as their counterparts in Paris were without seeing so much as a ball kicked in anger.
Talking of balls, though, there are some things that simply beggar belief in our sport. Now I know that snow in Rome is a pretty freaky occurrence, but it’s not altogether unheard of. So when conditions are more snow balls than high balls wouldn’t it be sensible to take some precautions with the actual match ball? The idea of trying to work with a ball that was predominantly white with flashes of green on a day when the pitch was... predominantly white with flashes of green showed a level of stupidity that was frankly ridiculous. Was it really beyond the wit of man to have an orange ball handy to give both players and spectators at least half a chance of keeping up with the action? In these highly-organised, ultra-professional days when literally millions of pounds are spent on producing a top quality spectacle, it does seem utterly mad to have overlooked something as primordial as being able to actually see the ball. Surely one for the competition organisers to look at ongoing.
And talking of ongoing, what chance does England’s Interim Head Coach Stuart Lancaster have of hanging onto the post full time after two wins in his first two games in charge? On the surface all looks rosy in the Red Rose camp. Two away victories in any Six Nations competition is something that’s not to be sniffed at. Even if they were against the competition’s two weakest nations. But to dwell on that would be unnecessarily negative. The 2012 edition of the competition is possibly the strongest, most balanced Six Nations there’s ever been. Coaches have traditionally enjoyed talking up the oppo in an attempt to deflect any criticisms should their own team fall short. But this year there’s a genuine argument to be made for the fact that no team is going to roll over and have their tummy tickled. Nobody will relish a trip to Edinburgh or Rome in this competition. If France don’t get their game heads on at Murrayfield on February 26 then they’ll be in for a very long afternoon. Ditto the Scots at the Stadio Olimpico on March 17. My bet is that the margins between winning and losing will be small in every single match that remains – and the tournament will be all the better for it.
So where exactly does this leave England? Well, their two performances so far have been built on organisation, heart and kicking efficiency. Not a bad place to begin building a team with serious ambitions, as it goes. But will it be enough to deliver wins against Wales, France and Ireland in England’s three remaining matches? There’s no doubt that Lancaster’s men will have to step up another couple of gears if they want to taste victory again. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the players have it within them to do just that. It may be asking a lot to construct a team capable of beating allcomers in five seconds flat. However momentum, attitude and youthful enthusiasm has an incredible ability to carry you a long way. When you’ve got sporting traction it can give you wings. And wins. England are still finding their feet, feeling their way towards cohesion. They’ve got two victories under their belts, but it’s clear that this is a team that hasn’t truly clicked as yet. That’s encouraging. It means there are huge margins for improvement. We’ve seen that Chris Robshaw brings workrate, energy and nous to the table. That Owen Farrell has that priceless commodity at international level; ice in his veins. That Brad Barritt can see the tiniest of gaps. That Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero are modern day props par excellence. And that Ben Morgan provides some serious go forward from off the base of the scrum. But the suspicion is that there’s a lot more to come. Will they all be able to summon it up on February 25 when a very good Wales side comes to Twickenham? If they can – and if England can manage to post another win on the board – then we might really start believing that England are ready mount a serious Six Nations challenge. And Lancaster can really start believing he’ll be around for the long haul.
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