Right idea, wrong tournament

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The autumn internationals over, I find myself considering the same question as three years ago. What are England’s chances in the next World Cup in two years time?

Back in 2003, I opined on this website that England’s forward strength needed to be augmented by more flair in the backs, that Mike Tindall was too much of a bludgeon to provide the creativity needed by Clive Woodward’s three-quarters and that a dazzling young flyer by the name of James Simpson-Daniel could provide that missing ingredient of unpredictability in the backs that could carry England to a world cup triumph.

Then Tindall of pre-Zara vintage went and did the job along with his team-mates in 2003, without any help from his fellow (nowadays) Gloucester centre Simpson-Daniel.

But in my defence, possibly the only thing I got wrong was the date of the tournament.

After watching England compete well in the forwards but fail to capitalise on the possession this gave their backs in a 23-19 defeat to New Zealand two weeks ago, many pundits - like Stuart Barnes and Dewi Morris - bemoaned Tindall’s influence and called for Simpson-Daniel to be drafted into the midfield to add creative spark.

Their critique is typical of the “qualified success” conclusion drawn by most analysts on England coach Andy Robinson’s record in the three autumn internationals, with the wins over Australia and Manu Samoa and the narrow defeat to the All Blacks.

Most England supporters, on the other hand, were unqualified in their delight by this record. They had expected a repeat of the hidings the All Blacks handed out during England’s 2004 tour to New Zealand and the similar fate suffered by the Lions a year later.

So two schools of thought emerge – a pint half-full crowd who claim England are back on course to defend their world crown in 2007, and the pint half-empty mob who still fret about the quality of England’s back play.

The optimists have one chilly precedent to trouble their confidence. The wave of supporter relief in the wake of “giving the All Blacks such a good game” was very reminiscent of a similar “moral” victory claimed in 1997 after a 25-8 defeat at Old Trafford.

That game became notorious for the lap of honour by the then-England captain Lawrence Dallaglio and his team-mates, an event that provoked bewilderment from their New Zealand opponents and years of sarcastic scorn from the southern hemisphere.

But hardly any All Blacks supporters were laughing when England completed victories over them at Twickenham and Wellington midway through the next world cup cycle in 2002-03.

So which of Clive Woodward’s teams does Andy Robinson’s now more resemble: the brave lap-of-honour also-rans of 1997 or the terrifyingly efficient Orcs of 2002-03?

I’ll answer next time, but for now use some concluding words as we enter into the Christmas spirit to lavish praise on a Ghost of England Rugby’s Past.

With my London Irish hat and scarf on, I trooped up to Leicester’s ground at Welford Road last Friday night full of expectation that the exiles could maintain their excellent third place start in the Guinness Premiership against a Tigers side missing players on international duty.

We were shaded 35-3.

A sobering evening for a London Irish fan, it was, but a delight for any rugby enthusiast to witness the most effervescent display by a scrum-half I’d seen these past couple of years (except for the television pictures of New Zealand’s Byron Kelleher and France’s Jean-Baptiste Elissalde).

The fantastic performance belonged to England’s forgotten man, Austin Healey. He did the lot, he scored tries, he created tries, he stopped near certain tries by London Irish virtually single-handedly. He was crafty, intelligent, explosive and dominating.

His youthful club-mate Harry Ellis may have won more plaudits for his try the following day against Samoa at Twickenham, but I believe England would be foolish to neglect Healey as they continue to search for gamebreakers in the backs.

Ellis and Healey are very alike as players and rugby personalities, but I reckon the older man has the edge in streetwise maturity and temperament. These are words I thought I’d never say about the famously cocksure and stroppy Healey.

And, lo and behold, the Mail on Sunday has flown the kite that Andy Robinson might turn to him.

The BBC may have Healey in mind for the role of a commentator and analyst, but perhaps he will manage to avoid the bittersweet fate of a similarly rebellious England talent of a previous generation. Barnes has been forced to accept the lesser honour of being far better known for his punditry skills than his brilliant rugby talent.

Come on Austin, this rugby journalism lark is overrated.

stephen.smith@ft.com

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