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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England are in need of another resurrection act.'

Mick Cleary: 'England are in need of another resurrection act.'
4 months ago

Perhaps Steve Borthwick picked up the riff from his time with England at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when that unlikely rugger-bugger, Kenny Rogers, became the team’s go-to warbler with his signature song, the one about The Gambler and knowing ‘when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.’

That last bit might come in handy for newbie, Manny Feyi-Waboso, the statement selection against Ireland. Old Kenny’s lyrics didn’t do that ’07 generation much harm as they rolled back the stone from the seeming dead of a 36-0 Pool loss to the Springboks to come within a Mark Cueto toe-nail of winning the final.

England are in need of another resurrection act on Saturday. Even the All Blacks rarely came to Twickenham as 1-6 on favourites. Is Manny to be the Miracle Man? Well, he has got some get-up-and-go as he showed in his lively try-scoring cameo at Murrayfield a fortnight ago. The 21 year-old was absent with leave from the training camp in York last week so will have been spared over-exposure to the ‘data straitjacket,’ that Will Carling believes England players are kitted out with. Paralysis by analysis, tippy-tap rugby, between a rock-and-a-hard place, nervous energy, just plain crap in basic skills at times, whatever the hell it was that caused such dunderhead moments at Murrayfield, you can only hope that the system has been cleansed for what awaits at Twickenham, namely the current most ruthlessly efficient team out there, meticulous and masterful in all that they do.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
The inclusion of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso has excited England fans (Photo by Dan Mullan – RFU/Getty Images)

Borthwick is at an interesting juncture, that’s for sure. Hold ‘em or fold ‘em or perhaps tinker with ‘em? All coaches get to the point where their initial assessments and strategies come under pressure. At that point they are either dumped (either the plan or the coach or both) or it is revised or stuck to come hell or high water: the head coach on the Bridge going down like the Titanic or riding those waves for all they are worth.

Borthwick would be perfectly entitled to adhere to his rigid play-by-numbers approach, hoofing high, chasing hard, minimising risk. It was effective enough in France a few months ago, the only downside being death by boredom for the spectators. Jamie George’s team are sincere in wanting to reconnect with their support base and even if their arrival long-walk through the Car Park is a tinkering contrivance it’s better than inducing  a click-clack walk of fans leaving their seats in despair at what they are witnessing.

England are far removed from where Ireland were when Andy Farrell succeeded Joe Schmidt, the Kiwi guru of detail, who had taken them to number one standing, a side honed and grooved to within an inch of their playing lives, programmed to near perfection.

Feyi-Waboso’s selection, and staying faithful to the decision to have George Furbank at full-back instead of the master-of-the-skies, Freddie Steward, spring-heeled in the air but leaden on the go-forward, shows that Borthwick has embarked on the evolutionary stage of this team. A damage limitation operation, the kick-fest option, might keep the scoreboard within an acceptable range against Ireland but it would not endear the side to the fans and nor would it move England on from where they are at the moment – stuck in a rut, searching for an identity, neither one thing or another, a Cunis as was once referenced of the New Zealander cricketer of that name.

England are far removed from where Ireland were when Andy Farrell succeeded Joe Schmidt, the Kiwi guru of detail, who had taken them to number one standing, a side honed and grooved to within an inch of their playing lives, programmed to near perfection. Farrell, though, recognised that there needed to be more flow and freedom in their game if they were not only to stay at the top but to win things. The shackles were loosened. And how.

Jamison Gibson-Park
Ireland are a joy to watch behind the scrum and have scored 15 tries in three Tests to date (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/Getty Images)

Rather like the vintage French sides of old, Ireland are a joy to behold when their multi-layered attack is in full spate. I was once admonished by the great Philippe Sella for resorting to cliché when describing that generation of French player as capable of ‘real flair,’ as if this was merely instinctive; that is, easy. Sella pointedly noted that they rehearsed such instincts time and time again, from an early age upwards, practising angles and support play. It was nurture, not nature. Ireland are at that point now, different in style to that French generation but all on each other’s radar.

Can England ever get there? Well, these are the first tentative little steps along that way. So much still needs to be done. So much needs to be proven. So much rests on how they fare, starting with Ireland. But with a back three of Furbank, Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman, there is an indication that England want to have an attack that is not just reliant on George Ford drop goals, crucial as any points will be on Saturday. Surely, the rear-field trio is to be more than speeds bumps as Ireland come cruising towards them.

George Martin’s return gives that England eight a chance. It’s as stark and simple as that. Martin’s availability is fundamental. There will be no turning of the other cheek when Martin is in town.

Of course, there are other factors that have to come into play if Manny and his mates are to prosper. Or even get a sniff of the ball. The pack has to do its particular schtick for this most challenging of fixtures and that is to be mean, snarly, awkward, to match the Peter O’Mahony wind-ups, to stand toe-to-toe with the snorting machine that is a Joe McCarthy, to be a Tadgh Beirne or Caelan Doris going through the gears, to hit the mark as a Dan Sheehan does, to anchor that scrum, to bring menace as well as poise to the breakdown and any one of a hundred more things.

George Martin’s return gives that England eight a chance. It’s as stark and simple as that. Martin’s availability is fundamental. There will be no turning of the other cheek when Martin is in town. There needs to be skills there, too, for sure. If Sam Underhill is being mentioned in dispatches then England will be in the contest.

George Martin
The inclusion of George Martin will beef up England’s ability to compete in the power stakes (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

That is the glass half-full scenario. There is, as we all know, a half-empty picture to paint. Those of a nervous disposition might want to cover their eyes now. England are still uncertain and unproven at half-back, partly through injury, and so too in the centres. Ollie Lawrence is a better prospect at 13 and much rests on Henry Slade to show that he is the man to shore up that blitz defence and to also to help galvanise the three musketeers around him.

England fans, long-suffering and restless, can at least approach the stadium this weekend with interest if not yet much conviction. The Gambler got his due return. What is for sure on Saturday is that England need more than four aces at their disposal. Fifteen aces all over the park and they may just have a sniff. The bookies’ bank rests on it.

Comments

1 Comment
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Andrew 123 days ago

Can they spring a surprise? Oooh yeah. Did they ever…

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