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Another day, another line-up. England, who play Samoa in Nantes on Saturday in their third World Cup pool match, are beginning to rival the National Health Service for the frequency of their reorganisations.
Just as public services are buffeted by the successive nostrums of management consultants, England have become notable for their lack of an overall strategy. They are now firmly into crisis management, where strategy goes out of the window, established beliefs are jettisoned and only the immediate problem matters.
They face Samoa with Josh Lewsey, previously written off as a full-back by coach Brian Ashton, at full-back. The half-backs who started last week’s 36-0 humiliation by South Africa fail even to make the bench. Scrum-half Andy Gomarsall, discarded by Worcester last year, starts a vital World Cup tie.
Versatile Joe Worsley plays his weakest back-row role, open-side. Out go all the mid-thirtysomething veterans, just as ebullient youth was dumped at the squad selection stage.
Once more unto the breach goes Martin Corry, epitome of what Americans call “taking one for the team”. When he lost the captaincy this year, Corry must at least have thought he was free of the chore least beloved of England captains – with the possible exception of Lawrence Dallaglio – press conferences. But there he has been again for the past two weeks, filling in for the suspended Phil Vickery, at the same time as playing his third different international position this year.
To be fair, England have been afflicted by foul luck. Jason Robinson, showing his best form in two years, goes down injured. Jamie Noon is ruled out of the tournament. An apparent stroke of luck such as Vickery escaping on-field sanctions for tripping an American becomes ill fortune when he is banned for two matches after being cited. A yellow card and a penalty to the US would have been easier to handle.
Ashton is far too smart not to recognise the position. Challenged with once again putting together new combinations that might need time to gel, he said: “We haven’t got time. We’ve picked what we think is the best team for this match, and the players know what they have to do.”
Being at the mercy of events is particularly troubling for a rugby culture that perhaps more than any other prizes control.
There have been efforts to reassert control. Defence coach Mike Ford, author of some eminently sensible comments on Andrew Farrell’s difficulties in adjusting from rugby league, was led out for recantation and self-criticism. Corry and Ashton have pronounced the mantra of under-performing teams, pointing to the excellent form in training sessions.
It is all in painful contrast to four years ago when Sir Clive Woodward, the most obviously managerial of rugby coaches, exuded such a sense of control that even a defeat such as the warm-up loss to France in Marseilles – removing the extra weight of a possible record-winning run – looked like part of a master plan. Woodward was indeed a fine strategist, but he had better players and a settled team.
So what is there to smile about? Jonny Wilkinson is back at outside-half, with Olly Barkley supplying the vital second playmaker option at inside centre, probably England’s most creative available pairing. Too bad they have not played together before, but you can’t have everything.
And Samoa have not been impressive. They were comprehensively beaten by Tonga, who now loom rather threateningly for England next Friday. England, nearly derailed by Samoa in Australia four years ago, know what to expect.
Wilkinson talks of opponents who are “not just great athletes, but gifted all-round players. Their backs have the power of forwards, while their front five have an awareness many backs can only dream of.”
Worsley says of them: “Unless your mindset is right, you’ll struggle in the collisions – they don’t come any bigger than a 125kg forward charging at you.”
Wilkinson, cutting a more relaxed, philosophical figure nowadays, adds: “They play with a smile on their faces, and perhaps we could all learn something from that.”
If the broader smiles in late afternoon in Nantes are English, we will know that the Samoa crisis has been passed, leaving the Tongan one to be overcome.
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