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Jason Robinson's heroics can't help England

Paul Ackford16/9/07

Very occasionally a game comes along which renders the normal emotional responses redundant. That match happened on Friday night at the Stade de France when England were poleaxed by South Africa. England were so inept, so woeful that the now customary reaction of anger or frustration following their dismal performances to date was inappropriate. This time the feelings went beyond rage to a dull ache of recognition that this World Cup has been calamitous for England's reputation around the world, that the players by and large are not of Test stature and that there have been serious shortcomings in the squad's selection and preparation.

One figure rises above that assessment. Jason Robinson, in what might have been his final game of rugby of any kind, was extraordinary. Without him it would have been permissible to assume that South Africa were a great side and indeed they might prove to be just that as the tournament unfolds. What Robinson did, though, with every fibre of his body including the several which snapped as he stepped up a gear in the second period, was to show his team-mates that the Springboks were human. Robinson's contribution was one of the great rearguard efforts in sport. It was just so horribly pertinent that his bristling was made even more emphatic by the malaise of those that surrounded him.

Clearly there are problems within this England camp which stretch beyond the wasted years following the last World Cup where no succession planning, an interminable conveyor belt of political squabbles and a sequence of coaches have brought England to their present predicament. Those are responsible for some of England's difficulties but there are other issues, many of a more practical nature, which have derailed this campaign.

Why, if you bring Lawrence Dallalgio to France, do you leave him out of the only fixture which will juice up his old bones? Why persist with Andy Farrell when at no time since he cheapened England's international jersey by having it handed to him on a plate has he looked even remotely like a Test midfield back? Why the confusion from coach Brian Ashton over who was wearing the No 10 shirt in the run-up to the game that was interpreted as a plan to unsettle the Boks but which smacked of an inability to make a decision? Why no fire from England in their first two matches? Why no tactical intelligence out on the pitch?

Why? Why? Why?

Ashton can point to the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, Olly Barkley and Phil Vickery as legitimate reasons for England's wretchedness, but this is very much his squad in terms of personnel and training regimes. He has had them exclusively since June 25 and therefore has to accept responsibility for their inertia. Even his honest admission of bemusement over why England struggled so badly against the United States now looks like the flailings of a man who has lost his team and his own sense of how to get the best out of them following the Springbok encounter.

But England's descent into derision is not Ashton's responsibility alone. It is now time to make an honest assessment of the quality of players at his disposal and to acknowledge that a third of Friday's team are not capable at the moment of taking on the best sides in the world. Some may develop and use the experience to resurrect their careers but, as things stand, Nick Easter, Shaun Perry and Jamie Noon are no more than average club players; Matt Stevens is too gentle a prop; Mark Regan is too engrossed in the mythology of the battle rather than the reality of it; and Paul Sackey and Tom Rees are young men with potential trying to finesse a game before they have mastered the fundamentals. Only Robinson, Andrew Sheridan, Martin Corry and Josh Lewsey have genuine international pedigrees and, Robinson apart, on Friday they were pretty much submerged by the ordinariness that accompanied them.

So what now for England? There is the little matter of a game with Samoa on Saturday followed by an outing with Tonga, encounters England must win to give them one last chance of redemption in a quarter-final. In ordinary circumstances you would back England to win both but these are bizarre times and Samoa, even allowing for the gross inequality of resources available to the respective teams, will be tough.

"We had two weeks in Loughborough and a week in Samoa to prepare for this World Cup," explained Michael Jones, the former All Black flanker who took on the coaching role after the last tournament. "But that week in Samoa was mainly farewells and social functions."

Samoa are still hugely neglected by the rugby community. Despite a High Performance Unit (HPU) established through funding from the International Rugby Board, the asset-stripping by New Zealand and Europe is ruthless. Six of the side that started against South Africa in their opening match play their rugby in the Premiership. A further two work out of Scotland.

Each year schools from New Zealand tour the island, ostensibly for highly competitive rugby matches but also to offer scholarships to the more gifted Samoan kids, who are then swallowed up and lost to their country of birth. "The HPU is beneficial," Jones said. "It ensures we're investing in the next generation of Samoan players on-island. But it's not going to stop them going off-island because the money is still offshore. You could say that the HPU is becoming a nursery for clubs overseas."

The pace of change is slow. Peter Fatialofa, one of Samoa's most famous forwards now a coach alongside Jones, reckons that the gym culture alien to the islanders is gradually producing results. "We used to lift coconuts and banana trees," he joked. "Now we have proper weights and a dietician." But even that cannot override the problems Jones faces coalescing a team from such an itinerant bunch of athletes. "We get our players from eight different systems," he said, "so we've got a lot of work to do to bring them together."

Jones is adamant that the migration of Samoan rugby players into different nations and cultures will not detract from their core values. "We don't try to turn them into a New Zealand rugby clone or an Australian or English rugby clone," he said. "We bring them back to the essence of who they are and that is based around pace, power and passion. We love to run with the ball. We love to bring our physicality onto the pitch. It's part of the warrior spirit. I can't bottle that up. I need to smooth over the rough edges but it would be remiss of me to train it out of them because that's the gift they've been given. We always talk about 'playing to the gift'."

Playing to the gift? That's a concept alien to this England team and their grotesque collection of attendants. For the second time in two matches there was laughter after the Springbok contest as the replacements and non-combatants warmed down out on the pitch. It seemed glaringly inappropriate at the time, even more so this morning as the scale of the catastrophe sinks in. What would England give for some warrior spirit. This week they are not just fighting for survival. They are fighting for self-respect.



PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Sunday, 16 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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Paul Ackford

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