by Simon Halliday
What a fascinating few months in the world of Rugby.
In a post World Cup 6 Nations of genuine mediocrity it was Italy who actually came close to the biggest upset of the tournament, when they should have beaten England in frozen Rome. All of which left the ultimate rugby conundrum - was the England revival a combination of outrageous good luck laced with a Red Rose love-in, or do we think England can challenge the world in the next year or two?
We shall find out more in the next few months as England move away from thefamiliar comfort zone of Europe and a Six Nations in which Wales achieved a barely deserved Grand Slam, although clearly the best team; Ireland didn't peak just after the RWC tournament asthey normally do; Scotland couldn't find anyone to unlock the try-line despite good approach work; and France was an anti-team - Saint Andre as coach could herald an era of rugby Austerity which won't go down well with the passionate French public.
The coming month will prove far more challenging. Watch out England on tour in South Africa, it seems, because the Bulls and the Stormers both look awesome in the Super 15, and Ulster’s Pienaar could also feature for the Springboks after his Heineken heroics.
And what about the real surprise package of the Super 15, the Waikato Chiefs. Take a bow Wayne Smith. They play through space, attack outside and inside shoulders and offloads are natural – it is so impressive. With Dan Carter operating so well at 12 for the Crusaders, the Super 15 is offering a totally different level of skill right now and England will sorely miss the Southern Hemisphere knowledge that Smith could have brought to their game.
Moments of such brilliance in the Northern Hemisphere stand out for their paucity. Rob Kearney, surely the best 15 in the world, found a lovely angle v Clermont in the Heineken semifinal and for that reason Leinster deserved to win. Poor old Fofana hardly got a look in as Brock James chose to have a nightmare at 10. Yet James had been made to look a world beater in the previous round as Saracens huffed and puffed with an England midfield whose lack of attacking flair cost them dearly.
In a flash you realise why Andy Farrell could never be the England Backs coach and why both Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt will struggle to stop the Leicester midfield playing en bloc for England - and that’s from a Bath man! Toby Flood and Anthony Allen have the talent to feed Tuilagi, not to mention the potent yet redundant back three, Foden, Ashton and Sharples ……. there are SO many quality backs in England but the quality of the coaching is dire, and creativity in Premiership rugby is non-existent outside Leicester (when they choose), Harlequins and occasionally Wasps or Gloucester …
Which is why the decision of Wayne Smith to say no to England is a major blow. He could have brought some basic attacking philosophy to the current sterile approach we saw in the 6 Nations. Links with the back row and distribution off 12 were nowhere to be seen and Foden hardly saw a ball worthy of the name. Smith would also have coached some back three counterattacking plays - England could be lethal with the right guidance.
No one, myself included, could fail to be impressed by four wins out of five for Lancaster’s England. In addition to the results his PR was outstanding and the players’ nationalism was both welcome and necessary. They put their RWC predecessors to real shame. How far we had plummeted, a fact we English only truly took on board when it was all so much better only weeks later.
It remains to be seen whether the 'Lancaster Journey' works out for England’s World Cup hopes given the issues around the coaching team. Ian Ritchie’s considered commitment to a World Class Coaching team looks hollow, and Lancaster is now casting around for the key to England’s real missing link - an attack strategy. It wasn't meant to be like this, was it?
Mike Catt is a novice, as he would admit, but at least he was available for a trip to SA. I have huge respect for Brian Ashton, my first England backs coach in 1985, but he wasn't even dreaming of being involved again - or was he ??!! …….. Lancaster could do worse than look at Steve Meehan who coached Bath when they had the best integrated attack in the Premiership.
In short the teams that play effectively through the middle will be the teams to beat. I dearly want that to include England, but it will take more than perspiration and clever talking to get there. I continue to hold my breath and wonder whether the high risk option was actually not Mallett/Smith but instead the eminently worthy Yorkshireman. Only time will tell!
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