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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England would not supply many, if any, names to a Six Nations XV'

Mick Cleary: 'England would not supply many, if any, names to a Six Nations XV'
4 months ago

It will be some time yet before England can compete with Liverpool’s Fab Four for entertainment. To be fair, they did manage to play some notes themselves in the second half but when the Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ first came through the PA they had been struggling to make sweet music of their own.

Of course, we all know Twickenham’s attempt to engage with fans is a contrived stunt, an understandable desire to be seen to be doing something, when the real answer lies in the team itself doing the business where it counts. The noise, the reaction, the empathy, the songs, the shouts, the cheers – all that will follow. The true and proper teams or athletes – think the Kop in full spate, Cardiff Arms Park/the Principality, Kingsholm’s The Shed or Super Saturday at the London Olympics – have no need of confected support. Build the team and they will follow.

England have won both of their opening Six Nations matches without hitting top gear (Photo by PA)

How long before Steve Borthwick’s England has that sort of organic connection? A while yet on the evidence of what was a stuttering, imperfect performance but, crucially, a win. But the Twickenham crowd is prepared to cut this generation some slack. They showed fight and resilience as well as cleverness, in particular the late-game tactical kicking of George Ford, to recover from a half-time deficit and record what was only their fourth victory in their last 11 home outings.

It’s in the history books. England are two from two and even if the reality of that record is based on wins over very middling sides, it is better than they have managed in recent years. There were impressive showings from Maro Itoje and Ben Earl, more aerial expertise from Freddie Steward who will never be a Serge Blanco or Andy Irvine in attack but who will be Freddie Steward at the rear, ever-reliable and trustworthy (by the way, given the number of backroom staff on the RFU payroll, could someone be charged with checking the length of Steward’s studs to help him keep his feet when he does make a break?). Ford, fine, as we know he is, Fraser Dingwall was worthy and willing and deserved his try but England still need more heft and thunder in the number 12 channel, and elsewhere for that matter.

That Earl was player of the match was a nonsense in real terms, able and prominent as he was, when Wales’ Tommy Reffell was by far the most productive figure.

That Earl was player of the match was a nonsense in real terms, able and prominent as he was, when Wales’ Tommy Reffell was by far the most productive figure, industrious, crafty and ever-present in the big moments. These awards – another contrivance – are only ever given to someone from the winning team, or worse, the home team so as to keep the local sponsor sweet. I was once invited to judge man of the match at a Saracens-Bath game. I was informed it had to be from the home side who, it has to be said, did not trouble the scorers as the opposition rattled up a half century of points. So, when it was duly announced, with a name-check for yours truly, I still shiver at the look on the face of (Bath coach) Andy Robinson as he turned to the press box in rage and incredulity.

Wales had a few more contenders, be it the two other back-rowers, Aaron Wainwright or the try-scoring Cardiff tyro, Alex Man, wing Rio Dyer or the lively centre Nick Tomkins.

Fraser Dingwall
Fraser Dingwall has seized his opportunity in midfield with Ollie Lawrence missing through injury (Photo by PA)

Back to the Fab Four. England have yet to supply their own quartet of Top of the Pops stars. Itoje alone would be in that bracket, his energy levels and involvements restored to what they once were. The scrummaging props, the starters and then, tellingly, the replacements, Ellis Genge and Dan Cole, performed their roles to good effect, the lineout operators with Ollie Chessum again conspicuous in all aspects while Wales’ efforts in that regard faded badly. But England would not supply many, if any, names to a Six Nations XV let alone a World XV. That is the measure of where they currently are and indicates where expectations and evaluations should be pitched.

It is blindingly obvious England’s toughest tests are to come. Rather as if they had posted a reasonable first innings score of 280 we won’t know truly how to measure it until Scotland, Ireland and France have been at the crease. If at least two of them knock up 450-500 then we will know that England are still some way short. This is far from a BazBall rugby team.

But one thing is emerging from the chaotic madness of the late-Eddie Jones reign and the play-by-numbers early months of Borthwick’s tenure. There is still a lot of playing by rote in the England way and there is still a worrying lack of clinical edge in their attack when they do get into the opposition 22. Wales showed them how to maximise opportunity with Mann’s try a particular beauty. Until England find that ruthlessness, they will be in chewed-fingernail territory – maybe they’ll win, maybe they won’t. Their meagre +5pts differential from two victories illustrates just that.

There will be no radical changes from this regime, on or off the pitch. That’s just the way Borthwick rocks – steady as he goes.

But they do have a sense of identity about them, forged through the World Cup experiences and taken up and developed by Jamie George. There is collective desire in there, a willingness to have each other’s back, and signs they are better conditioned as evidenced by their second-half performances. Their discipline levels are a bit weird with a good effort of seven penalties conceded offset by a disturbing tally of two yellow cards and a penalty try.

Borthwick will be studying medical bulletins closely ahead of the Calcutta Cup. A fit-again Ollie Lawrence would be a boon as would a return for George Martin. There needs to be more punch in England’s play, up front as well as through the midfield.

(Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)
England will hope Ollie Lawrence is fit for the remainder of the Six Nations (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

There will be no radical changes from this regime, on or off the pitch. That’s just the way Borthwick rocks – steady as he goes. If there is one thing, though, you yearn for him to get really wound-up about, it is to put pressure on referees to sort out the tedious, soul-destroying nonsense that is the resetting of scrums. Never mind all the supposedly inspirational messaging and rebranding of Twickenham, the stop-start stultifying rubbish that was the scrum on Saturday was enough to drive away thousands of would-be followers. #Scrum #Yawn #GiveThem30SecondsMax.

Spurs manager, Ange Postecoglou, held up his hands up in horror recently at the thought of yellow cards in football as it would slow down the game. Imagine his reaction if scrums were ever to come to the round-ball sport.

Comments

1 Comment
R
Russell 126 days ago

Erm I think they would be blue cards in Football but we see what you mean

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