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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'England fans are entitled to be grumpy and weary'

Mick Cleary: 'England fans are entitled to be grumpy and weary'
4 months ago

Four Calcutta Cups in a row… at this rate they’ll have to retire the trophy and put in on permanent display north of the border. That was one dismal reading of events at Murrayfield on Saturday and one that should not be conveniently pushed to one side. England’s loss, no matter the pluck, the occasional flash of brilliance, was studded also with morale-draining, laughable errors and cock-ups, pantomime rugby, and the continuation of a run of defeats in this prestigious fixture. You can’t airbrush history just because you don’t like it.

Steve Borthwick would have been entitled to hold his head in his hands – careful, Steve, don’t drop it – such were the elementary clangers being acted out below him. The England drawing board has been a much-worked tableau this past 14 months. They might have to buy a share in Wembley after all just to find room to store the ever-expanding scribble pad.

And yet. And yet.

George Furbank
George Furbank’s brilliantly worked try gave England hope but it was all in vain (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Rather like a golfer who smokes a couple of drives 200 yards straight down the middle yet still cards 120, England fans will cling on to the hope that two exquisite moments of near perfection, the beautifully-crafted sequence for George Furbank’s try and the sharp-eyed, sharp-angled run and score from newbie, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (who must start against Ireland), will keep them coming back for more. Yes, it is the hope that kills you. And those slivers of hope are very slim indeed. But if England’s unheralded run to third place in the World Cup restored a measure of respect (but precious little joy) to the English game, at least now with England’s new-found desire to give it a crack from time to time in attack, there is a little light at the end of that tunnel. But darkness there still as, and exasperation, too. Why, oh why, did England persist in kicking ball away with the clock running down and a game to chase ? Where was the urgency, the gumption, the belief? Not there yet, not by a long way.

Fair enough. England are deemed a work in progress. However, much like motorway repairs  that clog up your life for far too long and seem to go on for ever, England fans are entitled to be grumpy and weary. This has been going on a long time. If your glass is naturally half-full, you’ll give England the benefit of doubt still. If you’re a naturally half-empty person, those roadworks will annoy the buggery out of you no matter the smooth journey that might evolve in two years’ time. At least there is little danger of England peaking between World Cups.

Borthwick, of course, is not a man to lift the spirts by his demeanour alone. He is well-intentioned but his public face and utterances would drain the energy from a Duracell Bunny.

Borthwick, of course, is not a man to lift the spirts by his demeanour alone. He is well-intentioned but his public face and utterances would drain the energy from a Duracell Bunny. But, and here’s the rub, he is a tough bugger and now that he has embarked on a Felix Jones-nurtured change of direction – blitzing in defence, having-a-look-at-least in attack – he has to stick to his guns. There is no merit, for example, in flip-flopping on the decision to dump Freddie Steward (monstrously tough on the Leicester man but a bold, understandable call in context) for the pacier, more penetrating George Furbank even if the Northampton player had a mixed time of it. His other selections were also, as was once said of Kiwi cricketer, Bob Cunis, ‘neither one thing or the other,’ half-decent, half-arsed displays in equal measure.

Ollie Lawrence played at No 12 as if he were a natural No 13, slightly out of position and so, out of kilter, lacking the poise and ease that he shows in a Bath shirt. Maybe it’s time he should play where he is most comfortable. Certainly the 10-12-13 axis was, the Furbank try apart, a clunky, off-note unit. Danny Care had the sort of disjointed day that will annoy him immeasurably as his age-related opportunities diminish. He won’t be getting many more chances to start on this evidence.

Immanuel Feyi-Waboso
In a brief cameo, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso showed he had the power and pace to warrant a starting berth in this year’s tournament (Photo by Dan Mullan RFU/ via Getty Images)

You could encapsulate England’s present predicament – back to that Cunis analogy, between a rock and a hard place – in the figure of Ben Spencer. The Bath scrum-half is such an assured presence for Bath (as Scotland’s maestro-in-chief, Finn Russell, would testify) yet there he was, hoofing the ball high. There was some return from this but you yearned to see more of that early-game England, that Bathesque Spencer – challenging, probing, assured and going for it.

The blitz defence strategy is designed to cause chaos. The trouble is that at this stage of its implementation, it is inducing as much frenzy in England as it might do in the opposition. There is no settled air about England’s play. There is no instinctive trust in each other, no radar-honed awareness, no absolute belief. That can be the only explanation for the type of basic mistakes made – passes at heads, bouncing bomb-like passes flung into touch, balls spilled without pressure. This state of transition, from one way of playing to another, has also spawned a lack of clinical edge in the red zone. England faffed and flailed while Scotland struck. And how. They needed no second bidding.

The rather baffling thing about Saturday’s performance was that there was stuff to admire. If Ireland or France had scored a try of the Furbank ilk we would all be genuflecting before their artistry. Likewise, Feyi-Waboso’s score with its Damian Penaud overtones

England do not have a Duhan van der Merwe in their ranks (or, they might have only, he packed his bags and headed for Paris), no fear factor, no-one capable of escaping from the strait-jacket of modern rugby with its video-coached analysis, no Russell or van der Merwe or Jamison Gibson-Park or James Lowe, no stand-out talent that would trouble the selectors of a world XV. Until that status changes, then they will be confined to this mid-table (at best) mediocrity.

Of course, the rather baffling thing about Saturday’s performance was that there was stuff to admire. If Ireland or France had scored a try of the Furbank ilk we would all be genuflecting before their artistry. Likewise, Feyi-Waboso’s score with its Damian Penaud overtones, that willingness to make things happen.

Ben Earl was as worthy and engaged as ever while it was good to see Sam Underhill on the jackal beat again. Dan Cole was remarkably frisky although the scrum itself was a mixed bag. George Martin, a fumble apart, showed why he too must start against Ireland.

Jamie George
Jamie George will have to rouse his players for a big push with Ireland and France next up (Photo by Dan Mullan/ Getty Images)

There is no click-of-the-fingers remedy for England. Scotland did not actually have to do that much to win comfortably enough on the scoreboard but do it they did. An accomplished outfit.

These will be testing times for England followers. There is a bit of promise there but how long can you keep the faith without howling at the moon from time to time?

Of course, these hardships are as nothing compared to the trauma that Jamie George is dealing with. You might argue that his mother, Jane’s, swift decline and passing put things in perspective. Well, yes, of course, but he, and she from what I know of her, would not attempt to deflect criticism out of some sort of sympathy. In point of fact, all our respective debates and criticisms and disagreements over the triviality (but a magnificent triviality) that is sport, is what it is all about. Sport may not really be that important but it is what sustains us, enlivens us. That’s why the Calcutta Cup matters. Wherever it may reside.

Comments

16 Comments
A
Anthony 142 days ago

Fin
Evening.
Its a matter of opinion that Borethwick has a better mind than most England followers. He keeps picking the same Old leics players with the same dreadful results but expects them to perform better.
If you want to play attacking rugby then pick attacking players not kick artists and try to teach them how to actually run with the ball.
Its pathetic that he/ they just cannot see.
Please please will someone show him games of Northampton/ Harlequins ,Exeter, Ripping the opposition apart .
Let me out . This is just realy really dont know what to do management . Its apalling that Slade is terrific for Exeter but made to look pedestrian when playing for England and the same can be said about lots of other players .
Bloody awful coaching .
Ireland will stuff England if he keeps with the same old same old tactics and 10.
Borewick should be asked to move on after the 6 nations or it will be another Eddie situation in 4 years time . He should have bloodied Smith in the first 2 games . Now he is in a hole as Ford, he flatters to deceive, and is utterly not up to it and will again disappear against Ireland if given another start.
England have a terrific group of players poorly coached and hence made to look crap.

A
Anthony 143 days ago

Fin .
Fin russell has toured with lions TWICE.
Ford never. Not good enough as decided by infinitly better minds than you.
Marcus Smith was selected when Ford had been overlooked for a third time.
Regardless of your blind spot for flair, Russells game management outshone Ford by a country mile .
Pity you dont or wont recognise class .

S
Sumkunn Tsadmiova 143 days ago

Oh well, after the excellence flowing from Graham Simmons’ keyboard in recent weeks we’re brought down to earth by this quotidian, tabloid-style, garbage. This type of ill-informed, thoughtless, ranting “analysis” was a big reason why an Englishman “packed his bags and headed for Paris”. That though was Owen Farrell, not the player alluded to in this drivel who, apparently, is God’s gift to international rugby wingers having run in a few tries against, er, Chile. Cleary should have stayed at the Telegraph where the gout-ridden Bufton-Tufton typical readership, who never progressed beyond the Old Tossonians’ Thirds, presumably lap up this rubbish.

f
finn 143 days ago

“no stand-out talent that would trouble the selectors of a world XV. Until that status changes, then they will be confined to this mid-table (at best) mediocrity.”

I really think this is nonsense analysis. Finn Russell isn’t better than George Ford. Jamie George is the third best hooker in the world after Marx and Sheehan. Ben Earl would probably start for any team in the world bar Ireland, and the same goes for Ollie Lawrence when he’s in form. The problem England have is (1) people hate their style of play, so will always overlook players like Ford and George when comparing them with more flashy alternatives; (2) that people expect England to be one of the best teams in the world, so when they fall short it is held against them. Finn Russell has far more poor games than George Ford, but because Scotland aren’t expected to be consistently winning trophies it isn’t a scandal when he does play badly. Conversely if Ben Earl was playing for scotland, or wales, or italy, everyone would be blown away by his performances, but because he’s only playing slightly better than we expect english back row players to play then he’s not given the plaudits he arguably deserves.

I say “arguably” because ultimately I don’t think it matters whether we value individual players accurately or not. I’m not aggrieved that english players don’t get selected in world XVs, I just don’t think its a good explanation of a nation’s performances!

A
Adam 143 days ago

I think England fans just need to show a bit of patience to be honest. People just expect instantaneous results all the time and that doesn’t always happen.

Borthwick took over a team that was an absolute shambles and in his first year basically had to make sure they didn’t completely embarrass themselves at the World Cup. He was never going to do anything that radical, no coach would. I would argue this year is really his first proper crack at trying something.

The reality is that if Borthwick’s vision is to work, it will take time for that to happen. Andy Farrell’s Ireland weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire when he first took over, now look at them.

f
finn 143 days ago

“Ollie Lawrence played at No 12 as if he were a natural No 13, slightly out of position and so, out of kilter, lacking the poise and ease that he shows in a Bath shirt. Maybe it’s time he should play where he is most comfortable”

did he? or did he play like a 12 who has been out of the team for a while and needs more time to play himself into form?

its probably a bit of both. I would have liked Dan Kelly to be in the squad so we could alternate between Lawrence-Slade when we need more finesse and Kelly-Lawrence when we need more power. Without Kelly though, I don’t think we have an alternative to persisting with Lawrence at 12.

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