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England may roar but All Blacks will soar

Paul Ackford3/9/07

Well, at least there is no expectation weighing them down. As England prepare for their first World Cup match against the lowly US of A this Saturday, no one, not even I suspect the more honest souls among the coaches and players in the England squad, anticipates anything more than gallant failure. They'll stuff the Yanks all right and, for a brief moment, we will talk in positive terms about England's forward strength and flashes of creativity, missing for much of the last 12 months, but then the Springboks will loom large and England's first major examination will commence.

Unlike some, I don't rate this particular South African team, certainly not enough to place them behind New Zealand and on a level with France as joint second favourites. Their destruction of Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend was impressive but then I don't rate Scotland as anything more sophisticated than a bunch of honest toilers. Yet it is indicative of England's current malaise that South Africa might very well prove too strong for them, shunting them towards a probable semi-final against New Zealand and extinction.

Because if this World Cup is about anything it is about power. Power in the defensive tackle; power over the ball in the contact areas; power in the driving mauls, in the scrummage and in the one-on-one collisions. And it's not just confined to the forwards and the midfield backs either. These days, with the more intelligent teams able to target individuals in their attacking plays, it is crucial that scrum-halves, wings, full backs and outside halves are big and brutish. It doesn't make watching Test rugby particularly edifying sometimes but it is a fact of modern life.

There are exceptions of course. Men like Dan Carter, Brian O'Driscoll, Jason Robinson, Matt Giteau, Freddie Michalak and Shane Williams (sometimes), and Bryan Habana demonstrate that there are still outlets for craftsmanship, that there are ways to beguile or bewitch opponents rather than run through them. But they are rare beasts and are not representative of the modern trend.

And this is England's problem. They lack real, dynamic, explosive power, none more so than their totemic symbol, Lawrence Dallaglio. We're not talking falling off a cliff here. Dallaglio will still rage and rampage. He will still have an impact on the tournament but Dallaglio, like some in England's squad, has had his golden moments on the rugby fields round the world. Guys like Josh Lewsey, Mark Regan and, yes, possibly even Jonny Wilkinson are also fading slowly. Rugby World Cup 2003 was all about experience and consistency and England pressed those buttons but the caravan has since moved on.

Where are the England players to put the frighteners on the big teams? Wilkinson might trouble them with his penalty-taking accuracy but now that others are privy to the technical assistance he alone once enjoyed his percentages are not that much different from the rest. Plus, England have to get Wilkinson into the areas of the pitch to allow him to work his magic.

Tom Rees is another who is tipped to make a difference. Rees is 22. He has won six caps for his country, three of those off the bench; he is playing in a back row which is far from settled and he is operating in the most ferociously competitive environment of all. Rees is a fine player and could go on to become a great one, but to ask him not just to compete but to better the likes of Richie McCaw, George Smith, Juan Smith and Remy Martin is ridiculous.

So England will have to march on holding fast to their traditional virtues of team spirit, organisation, a decent first-phase platform and good old-fashioned obduracy. If head coach Brian Ashton gets his selections right and England are fortunate with injuries, Ben Kay and Simon Shaw will provide decent possession from the lineout. The scrummage, too, with Andrew Sheridan finally coming back into form, looks tidy, though Phil Vickery's dodgy injury record makes Julian White's decision to stand down for this World Cup all the more disturbing.

But getting those areas right won't make England a credible force in this World Cup. To do that they have to address an area which has concerned them since the last one: how to unsettle defences away from the channels close to the safety blanket of the forwards. And here Ashton has been unlucky. Injuries to Mike Tindall and David Strettle have deprived him of two men who, in different ways, can bust open defences. True, England do have Robinson who can play a bit, and Mark Cueto might make a fist of full back sooner rather than later. Paul Sackey, downhill and with a following wind, might skip out of a tackle or two. But, Robinson apart, there is no one in the wide positions who regularly sets hearts fluttering when he gets near the ball. And that's if the ball ever negotiates the mess that is England's midfield.

Mind you, that is one positive that will emerge from this World Cup, because whatever happens to England over the next seven weeks, in the future we will be spared the interminable debate over the merits of a certain Andy Farrell. If England get to a semi-final or beyond and Farrell plays a significant role in that journey he will have proved his worth. If not, he will be seen as a luxury neither the Rugby Football Union (financially) nor Ashton (strategically) should have afforded. My sense is that we will see Farrell as the union player he is: reliable, accurate and committed but no more than that, and certainly not of a calibre to challenge the aristocrats of the world game.

But enough of England's woes. World Cups are as much a check on the vibrancy of the sport as they are about the fortunes of individual nations and it will be fascinating to discover if there is more genuine competition between countries during the pool stages. France and Ireland will be looking over their shoulders at Argentina; Wales will take Fiji and Canada seriously; England will secretly fear the abrasive Samoans and even the all-conquering All Blacks might spare a thought or two for Italy, who shook Ireland recently. Scotland certainly will. If this World Cup is to have a lasting impact then matches between those countries must be as tight going into the last quarter as they are in the first.

And the sport also needs to show that the gym is not the beginning and end of a player's education. Crank up the power by all means but not at the expense of subtlety. Test rugby needs to find a balance between creativity and brick walls. That approach is at the heart of New Zealand's challenge and for that reason alone it is legitimate to hope that they end a 20-year World Cup drought when the final is played, appropriately enough, on Oct 20 in the Stade de France in Paris.

It is fair to assume, though, that by then England's warriors will be fully immersed in Premiership action once more.



PAUL ACKFORD - Sunday Telegraph | Monday, 3 September 2007 | Comment on this article

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Paul Ackford

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