Saturday, March 7, 2009

What's England's problem - Ebren

It's a week off in the Six Nations championship, and time to reflect.

While there's plenty to write about Wales, Ireland, France Scotland and Italy, that's not what I'm going to do - instead I'm going to ask a question that's been on my mind for years now: "What's England's problem?"

Why am I asking this now? Well, put simply it's because all of a sudden the question has become a lot harder to answer.

As the wonderful 2003 team/machine broke apart, England were always going to struggle. We had this lunatic notion at the time that so blessed were the Red Roses the England 'B' team could take on and win against any side in Europe and give a good showing against the Tri-Nation powerhouses. We were wrong, very, very wrong.

But that lack of players no longer applies.

Not since the days of Bracken and Dawson have we had two scrum halves of international quality fighting for a starting shirt - gone are the has beens and almost men that have tried to link play between forwards and backs. Ellis and Care are actually good - I was as surprised as anyone.

Cueto, Sackey and Armitage are players of genuine pace and quality - with classical outside breaks in their locker to make the purist's heart sing. Tindal my be a brute, but he has more international pedigree than his girlfriend's mount (if a little less pace and good looks). Flutey offers trickery and experience - and a player of such rare ability as Tait is left on the bench.

Fly Half is a problem, Flood and Goode are adequate, but neither really convinces me as an international player. The feeling persists that a fit Wilkinson (or even Hodgeson) would walk into the role, but the stronger feeling is that Cipriani is missing out. He might be raw, but he will stay that way unless given game time. Playing a defensive fly half - no matter how much he looks like Phillip Glennister and how happy that makes me - at home against Italy is criminal.

The back row may lack a Williams or a Harinordoquy, but it's the strongest we've had since the Back-Dallaglio-Hill triumvirate. Easter, Haskell and Worsley offer muscle, energy and really effective defence - which is their job.

The second rows lack genuine world class, but is good enough, Vickery and Sheridan at 3 and 1 are impressive and Mears the equal of many of the men who pulled on the No 2 shirt in the 'glory days'.

So - what we have is a good team, stacked with ability and with flashes of brilliance. But it's not good enough.

An unconvincing win against Italy, losses - no matter how close - to Wales and Ireland, and the worrying prospect of games against France and even Scotland to come.

Which brings me back to my original question: what's the problem?

Discipline is what the team is getting hammered for, but that's a red herring. Players do stupid things, they always have and always will, but they do them a lot more often when they're under pressure.

It's really rather hard to concede a penalty or be sin-binned when in possession of the ball and moving forward and penalties generally reflect the balance of play (defending teams just give more of them away - a point I made repeatedly when everyone was criticising England for winning courtesy of Jonny's left boot).

Our defence has been sound, Ireland and Wales are exciting, attacking teams - we smothered them, actually outscoring Wales two tries to one and restricting Ireland to a close-range smash.

So what are we lacking, what's the difference between a good team going close and a great one winning all the time?

Well, part of the difference is habit. The Wales or Ireland of a few seasons ago might not have had the savvy to close out those games. The England of a few seasons ago would have known how to win them. This is not a comment on players, more on the team mentality. But you don't change that mentality without winning a few games.

Part of what's missing is a kicker - we missed enough penalties to beat both Ireland and Wales - Woodward always maintained you should not set foot on an international pitch without a world-class kicker - but we can't conjure one our of thin air, so we will have to ignore that while hoping Johnson is making his available options practice a lot (Armitage for the long-term anyone?).

But I think it comes down to inspiration - that moment when you break a line, knock an opposing player off their feet, drop a goal.

Martin Johnson was strong, hard, unrelenting. He inspired by refusing to quit, ignoring risk of injury and pain, and driving forward. He never inspired with skill or controlled with intelligence. Wilkinson, Greenwood, Robinson - heck, even Austin Healy - were the ones that made things happen.

We need that vision back - in short we need Tait and Cipriani in the team. It might weaken the defence. Scratch that, it would weaken the defence. But as good as this defence is, without inspiration going forward or a kicker to convert possession and manage territory; defence is not going to win games. So we need players that put points on the board, not players that restrict our losses.

What's England's problem then? Simples - as Alexander the Meerkat might put it - we are trying not to lose rather than win.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Atrocity in Lahore - Mimitig

Geographically Lahore is many miles from these shores but the events of Tuesday 3 March have brought terrorism painfully close to home. The ex-Patriot Pakistani community in the UK and those born here of Pakistani origins are perhaps the most affected as they have immediate family to be concerned about – not that in most of the reporting I’ve heard and read over the last few days has any mention of them been made – but the sporting world and the cricket world in particular has been shaken to its roots. And will never be the same.

Sport in general has felt itself immune from attack. The belief that sport exists to bring people together and celebrate life is inherent in fans. We may indulge in “hating” the opposition, but very seldom does that mean actually wishing harm or bad fortune on any team.

Cricket especially so. Support for one’s own side is of course paramount, but fans are unanimous in appreciating the skills of opponents. A batsman making 50 or a century is applauded by all, as is a bowler getting a five-fer. When one’s side is beaten, the phrase universally used is “the best side won on the day”. Very rarely are excuses made for the losing side, and blaming the umpires for defeat is just not done.

This may be why an attack on cricket has become such a news monster. Former England captain, Michael Atherton writes in the Times and mentions how cricketers have accidentally been caught up in events of global terrorism, but on those occasions, no headlines involved the sportsmen.

Bronwen Maddox, also in the Times, notes the five most recent terror attacks in Pakistan, none of which, although more people died, attracted as many column inches and headlines as the latest attack.

So here is the horrible question that faces sport now: is it now a viable and worthwhile target for terrorism?

If what the terrorists want is publicity and a change in behaviour of the targets, then those behind the attack in Lahore must be feeling pretty smug already. The world has focussed on their activities and the international cricket community has said, fairly definitively, that they will no longer play in Pakistan.

The fact that the head of the Pakistan Cricket Board feels able to go on air and criticise comments made by match referee Chris Broad shows how defensive the authorities in Pakistan are, and also how much in denial. Sadly his remarks – that Broad is inaccurate in his reporting of events – also show that the authorities are concentrating less on where they have failed and more on what overseas media are reporting.

There is a serious suggestion, Giles Clarke head of the ECB, is said to be considering it, that Pakistan will come to England to play their international cricket. Peter Young of Cricket Australia has added his voice:

While many on these shores would welcome the addition of more international cricket being played in the UK – and the thought of Australia v Pakistan here is indeed exciting (and not just for fans, I wouldn’t mind betting that the ECB are rubbing their financial hands with glee at the thought of selling out Old Trafford and Headingley amongst other grounds) - one wonders what the price in security would be.

If sport is no longer immune from terrorist attacks, will it matter whether games are played on the Sub-Continent, in neutral territory such as Dubai or England – where we have already seen hideous and successful terrorism in London in 2005 (when the cricketers of Australia and England were playing a Test Match in Leeds).

A can of worms has been opened, an evil genie let out of the bottle.

Sport can never be the same again, not for those playing the games, those running the games and not for fans.

An age of innocence that we have basked in since Munich 1972 is over, my friends.

It’s gone.

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