England’s Red Herring

As a big fan of Occam’s Razor I’d say the simplest way to describe the England rugby team’s biggest problem is that they are sorely lacking a true, ball scavenging open side flanker. That wouldn’t make for a particularly edifying blog though, so here’s why the absence of a number 7 has been such an impediment for what seems to be a very long time (but is probably in actuality about 18 months). Remember last season how the man who bore the main brunt of the critic’s ire was Chris Ashton? Well he’s been replaced by Jack Nowell, Samesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson all prodigious talents who have arguably deserved a chance to prove their worth as International rugby players but none have done anything that Ashton couldn’t do or put on faultless displays in a white shirt. The one major difference is that while the 3 people who have replaced Ashton have also suffered from being isolated on the wing and not received any real service form players around him they’ve not really shown any sort of effervescent personality traits that seemed to rub Ashton’s critics up the wrong way. In England’s last 2 Test matches their wingers have recorded 12 touches and 15 touches (it’s difficult to tell if they were passes from their own teammates or kicks they fielded from opponents) but in England’s 3rd Test on the tour of New Zealand (that they lost 36-13) Cory Jane touched the ball 19 times and his All Black wing partner Julian Savea notched a rather massive 21 touches. To put that into context England’s Fly Half Owen Farrell, who has been bearing the brunt of the critics gibes in recent weeks touched the ball just 27 times last week against South Africa. Farrell’s main problem is that he’s only managed limited game time for his club Saracens this season and he may be shying away from taking the ball unless it’s fast and clean another problem which has seemingly been addressed this week has been that Danny Care has been unable to get the ball away from the ruck area with any real sort of pace and has been running ineffectively, managing to gain 22 metres on 9 runs last week (his opposite number Cobus Reinach managed 25 metres on just 6 snipes).
Meanwhile in the forward pack Billy Vunipola, another Saracens player (anybody else see a pattern developing here) has become a target for increased griping about his work-rate and when you’re pushing 20 stone it’s always going to be a criticism levelled at you, but there’s a reason England pick a man mountain at number 8 and it’s not fly around the park and be the first to the breakdowns. The counterargument is that Vunipola is the only part of the backrow actually serving a purpose, he’s one of the most destructive ball carriers England have had for some time but as the 2 wing forward’s he usually plays with for England are both 6.5’s and neither is a real 7 Vunipola is expected to fill in the gaps they leave both in defence and attack (and as previously mentioned he’s a mountain and most mountain’s haven’t moved far since they were formed in the Cretaceous period). At his club Saracens Vunipola is always an effective 8 largely because they have 2 flankers who have defined roles and who fulfil these roles effectively so bringing him into a different environment where one flanker is picked seemingly because he’s a lovely chap and an affable Captain an another picked because he provides a lineout option and a large amount of physicality in defence seems a strange policy.
Once again borrowing a lot from the principle of Occum’s Razor there are 2 keys to modern International rugby, firstly physicality in defence which England have in bucket loads and secondly quick ball (or even better turnover ball) in attack which England have been sorely lacking, Danny Care would probably argue that he was prevented from providing quick ball by the ponderous way his forwards went about their job in the last 2 weeks and if the 9 can’t provide the 10 with the time and space then the whole backline will struggle to make an impression on the game. This week against Samoa James Haskell should undoubtedly make a difference to the speed of England’s ball, however Haskell has been playing 7 for his club Wasps all season but will wear the 6 shirt today. So either England don’t care which flanker does what around the park which could lead to a backrow which is unbalanced as it has been in recent games, which would be extremely dangerous against Samoa’s open side Jack Lam or they really do believe that Captain Chris Robshaw is an International class 7, an opinion which recent history would contradict. I’m expecting Haskell to be the best player in a white shirt today and if England’s forwards can provide quick ball then their new half back pairing of Ben Youngs and George Ford will revel and should lead the team to an impressive win. Knowing who’s awarding the Man of the Match trophy I’d say George Ford is a shoe in to win the champagne. If the forwards struggle against a Samoan forward pack that were comprehensively beaten by Italy 2 weeks ago then it really doesn’t matter which half backs England have picked or isn’t getting the ball on the wing.

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