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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'What price would England supporters give for some swagger'

Mick Cleary: 'What price would England supporters give for some swagger'
8 months ago

Whatever happened to the pomp and circumstance of the English, to their high falutin’ ways and their arrogant presumptions? Everyone bridles, don’t they, at England’s sense of entitlement? Why, it is said, some even hate them for it. ‘Anybody but England’ has been the cry at nearly every World Cup. And Six Nations. Every game in fact. Truth is that this particular take on English rugby teams down the decades, this peddling of the stereotype of pompous, over-rated, over-hyped England, is little more than pantomime fodder. Yah, boo, sucks sort of stuff.

But it does tell us something. In brief, that England used to be feared, that they represented something of a threat. The jibes were a defence mechanism. And this World Cup? Not a peep. Not a smidgen of interest outside their own circle. In fact, on Saturday, in living rooms and bars up and down the lands, there were only giggles and gasps as Samoa came close, so, so close to lowering English colours for the first time ever. Every single one of those England players on show in Lille would have preferred taunts of arrogance to be thrown at them than stifled mirth at their evident struggles. My God, has it come to the point when England are to be pitied? Has it really come to that? (Answer, yes it has).

No more Rule Britannia aloofness, no more colonial know-it-all demeanour. What price would England supporters give for some swagger and a sense of certainty as located long ago in the beetle-browed frowns of a Martin Johnson, or the bristling, chest-pouting pose of that legendary Irish-Italian-Englishman, Lawrence Dallaglio. Who could deny them that self-assured air? England have had a pretty decent record at World Cups. As we all know, the meek do not tend to inherit the Webb Ellis trophy.

Manu Tuilagi
Manu Tuilagi ran with purpose early on but England lost their way and were lucky to win (Photo by David Ramos/ Getty Images)

But Steve Borthwick’s side are not of that ilk, imagined or real. They have made their way into the knockout stages for the ninth time in ten World Cup iterations, the home soil debacle the only blip and blob, with barely a whimper. They have arrived without fanfare, a team without ego or, crucially, expectation. Fiji await in Marseille. Another Pacific Island opponent in prospect, only even more locked and loaded than Samoa, primed with a recent victory over England in their psychological bank.

Is there a glass half-full theory for England fans to clutch at? What about Steve Borthwick’s team being some sort of assassin in the shadows, poised to take out the unaware? South Africa, remember, were not pulling up trees four years ago, losing to New Zealand in the pool stages, and only just muscling their way past Wales in the semi-final. England had been imperious in their semi-final, the Springboks functional. And then see what happened.

It would be ridiculous to place them within a country mile of the levels of market-leaders such as France and Ireland with South Africa and New Zealand also in the mix.

England are made in the image of their head coach, a grafting, selfless, unassuming unit devoid of bombast or bullshit. They may not be easy to love with their style of play, their kick-heavy, risk-adverse, grind it out and grind them down approach. But you have to at least give a nod in the direction of their 100% record at this World Cup. Don’t you?

Well, maybe not. Let’s be generous just for the sake of argument. Of course it would be ridiculous to place them within a country mile of the levels of market-leaders such as France and Ireland with South Africa and New Zealand also in the mix. But they are here in the quarter-finals, the draw is favourable to them and if they were to progress then they have the capacity in theory to succeed but only if absolutely everything were to fall their way. They are no-frills floaters, solid(ish) without ever being close to spectacular – would that they were – but comfortable enough in their own skin.

Samoa
Samoa played with an ambition that England could not live with and they were unlucky to see a try chalked off (Photo Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

They make no apologies for the manner in which they play and why should they given that they rolled back the stone from the seeming dead of their build-up selves to show that they were alive and kicking – and no-one more so than George Ford with his 27 point, three drop-goal haul – when registering an admirable victory over Pool D co-favourites, Argentina on the opening weekend. That it was achieved with 14 men for the most part showed that their rugby may have been flat and fractured in August but their spirit was not.

You can’t bluff your way to success, even modest as that scale of achievement is at the moment. That Pool D was the least challenging of all the groups was not England’s fault. They have dealt with it. Just. And that is all that can be asked of them at this point. They are in the ball game. Would that their former coach could say that.

The glass half empty version – and let’s be honest that is the more realistic take on what unfolded at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy – is that England haven’t a prayer.

Ok, that is the glass half full perspective and that needs every last bubble counted to make the measure. The glass half empty version – and let’s be honest that is the more realistic take on what unfolded at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy – is that England haven’t a prayer. They might beat Fiji but who would risk money on that? But they will get beaten, and well-beaten, in a semi-final. They were as poor as poor can be against Samoa who deserved to win by at least a score. One five minute sequence late in the game encapsulated their awfulness. First, Owen Farrell had a shot-clock shocker, then Kyle Sinckler conceded a scrum penalty followed by England stuffing up positions in front of the posts. Only Danny Care bailed them out with a try and a try-saving tackle on Neria Fomai.

Owen Farrell Marcus Smith
England have the now perennial problem of how to accommodate George Ford, Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith into the England side (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

If this had been a boxing match, the referee would have had no hesitation in awarding the bout to Samoa for they landed more punches.

What now for England? In terms of selection they have to cut to the chase and play Owen Farrell or George Ford at fly-half. The dual combo didn’t work. Care offers more at scrum-half where England really are behind the elite teams in terms of quality. Ben Earl got shown up as a No 8 at the base of the scrum but offers more round the field.

Marcus Smith? Why not for goodness sake? England have nothing else to offer but a wild-card crack at things.

Marcus Smith? Why not for goodness sake? England have nothing else to offer but a wild-card crack at things. They are in the quarter-final line-up so they have an outside, or maybe an outlandish, chance. But no more than that. It’s not quite the victory march one might expect into the knockouts. But England will take it. It is all that they have.

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