Sunday, 7 August 2011

Stephen Jones: Black must be joking

11 September 2011
Sunday Times
Stephen Jones

Black magic... You must be joking

Ben Youngs scores the only try as England stutter to an unconvincing victory in their first World Cup game against Argentina in New Zealand

Ben Youngs (L) celebrates scoring the first try for England with Manu Tuilagi (Paul Harding)Scrum-half Ben Youngs celebrates scoring for England with Manu Tuilagi (Paul Harding)
For most of a thunderous match in Dunedin’s indoor stadium, England looked in grave danger of opening their Rugby World Cup pool programme with defeat against a powerful Argentina team that dominated large periods of the game. A try by Ben Youngs, arriving as a late replacement for his first action since March, rescued England, though the Pumas remained the superior team almost until the end, underlining the question marks over the ability of Martin Johnson’s men.
Both teams’ kickers endured a nightmare evening despite the dead calm conditions — Jonny Wilkinson, the second-highest point scorer in international rugby history, missed with four successive shots at goal, while the Argentina kickers fired wide six times. Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper headlined its coverage “Jonny Rotten”.
Wilkinson refused to criticise the new World Cup ball, saying: “I’m not going to apportion any kind of blame other than that on myself. I was the one kicking the ball and when I hit them I felt I was hitting them very, very well.”
Johnson acknowledged that England, clad in unfamiliar all black, had given a less than convincing performance. “I aged about 20 years but that’s what World Cups are about,” he said. “You’ve got to find a way to win it. All the players are frustrated but in the circumstances that is a good win, a fantastic win.”
England’s evening could yet prove costly. Lock Courtney Lawes was involved in two incidents that may attract the attention of Murray Whyte of Ireland, the citing officer.
Lawes hit Argentina’s Gonzalo Tiesi with a tackle that saw Tiesi leave the match and replays suggested that the hit may have been a late and illegal shoulder-charge.
Lawes also appeared to knee in the back the Argentina hooker Mario Ledesma. Whyte has 36 hours from the end of the game to decide whether citing is appropriate.
England, whose next match is against Georgia a week today, played down an incident in which flanker James Haskell was clearly seen to indicate that he had been gouged during the match. He said afterwards: “At the last breakdown I got a bit het up. I got cleaned out, I had hands in my face and I think it was just a bit of over-exuberance in the heat of the moment. It is nothing really.” Again, Whyte will be scanning the replays.
In yesterday’s other games, two late tries from Simon Danielli gave Scotland a 34-24 win over Romania, while France beat Japan 47-21 and Fiji defeated Namibia 49-25, with four tries from Vereniki Goneva.

28 August
Sunday Times

At one minute to a dark midnight on the clock of their four-year cycle of World Cup preparation, England finally saw some gleams of light. They disposed of an abysmal Ireland with more conviction than the score suggests, they now enter the World Cup with some confidence and all the almost posthumously late changes that Martin Johnson has made to an established and misfiring team seemed to work well.

Naturally, to jump off the high board would be ridiculous. This was a worthy victory, it was a complete reversal of the Ireland-England match in the Six Nations but anybody who watched the vastly superior Australia-New Zealand match in the morning and compared it with this occasionally attractive but decidedly fitful and scruffy match, will have their own inbuilt notes of caution. Ireland, on this evidence, will be scanning the recent form of the USA, their first opponents in New Zealand.

Easily the best news for England came in the midfield where Mike Tindall, usually lining up at inside-centre, had his best game for several years for his country and where Manu Tuilagi was something approaching a revelation. The young Samoan scored a striking try, albeit past rotten defence, and hit hard in defence but kept his discipline.

Jonny Wilkinson was quiet inside them, having lost a great deal of the length on his punting, but at least he made things more orderly and England played with more shape than they have of late.

It was worrying that Mark Cueto, Hendre Fourie and Tindall all had to leave the field with injury. It was also worrying that Chris Ashton and Ben Foden were so inconspicuous, and also that the mighty England pack did not assert themselves far more powerfully with driving and better clearing out. But the return of Andrew Sheridan to the front row alongside Steve Thompson gave them a solidity. James Haskell did more than enough as a No 8 to claim the starting position.

There were still long periods where England became confused and sat back. They scored one try through a defensive error and another through a clever chip by Tindall but, in truth, their attacking machine had gone up a gear from stationary to splattering. It was still nothing like dangerous enough. Ireland could not make the scores in a ragged final quarter to put England’s nerve to the test.

Ireland were shambolic. They made some early points when Cian Healy managed to burrow under Dan Cole at scrums and the work rate of Paul O’Connell was incredible. But their forward play lacked power and passion. When the ball came back there was a dismal lack of penetration, with only Andrew Trimble offering any threat. The satisfaction that Ireland felt on seeing Stephen Ferris restored on the blindside was more than outweighed by the shocking sight of David Wallace being carried off with what looked like a serious knee injury.

Ireland have lost all four of their warm-up games. The contrast yesterday between the electricity of Australia, who are in Ireland’s pool, and the feeble efforts of Ireland was stark.

Tuilagi’s grand day began in style. England had already put down a pressure platform with an accurate early series of attacks which ended when Wilkinson rather lamely and unsuccessfully dropped for goal. However, soon afterwards, England did score. They appeared to be in trouble on their put-in to a scrum but Haskell kept his head and drove the ball on. England moved the ball left with crisp passing but probably with no more ambition than to set the ball up again. But when Tuilagi held his run and came from deep he glided outside Keith Earls to score almost at his leisure. It was a lovely finish by England’s new meteor but an absolutely dreadful bit of defending by the Irish back division in general and by Earls in particular.

England managed to sort out their early scrummage problems and Sheridan began to make a mess of Mike Ross. And a conversion and two penalties by Wilkinson stretched England away to 13-9 by half time, with Ireland’s points all coming from the boot of Ronan O’Gara. It could easily have been worse for Ireland, when they overthrew the ball at a lineout and Tuilagi snaffled it and set off in space with around 80 metres to go. He lacks the extra yard of gas of a true sprinter, and Geordan Murphy, his clubmate, ran him down — a superb defeat by the veteran Murphy, which saved the game as a contest.

Some of England’s discipline horrors which cost them their previous game in Dublin resurfaced at the start of the second half, notably when Ashton flopped carelessly over the ball to try to kill a ruck after the referee had put England on a final warning. With Ireland only four points adrift, it was their chance to burst back into proceedings, and send themselves to New Zealand on a winning note.

No such luck for the Irish, however. England drove the ball on in an attack that was accurate without ever being dangerous but Tindall noticed that the Irish outside backs had come up flat, chipped the ball cleverly through and Delon Armitage came sprinting up to score. Wilkinson’s conversion made it 20-9.

After that, the only real concern for England lay in potential injury. Wilkinson was clearly suffering from knocks but continued to plough on into the tackle, and even though Tindall limped off, his demeanour suggested his hamstring was tight, not pulled.

At the very end, inspired by O’Connell and with John Sexton trying to pin England back into the corners, Ireland at least gained a territorial advantage. But Haskell and the back row and Tuilagi and the midfield kept their defensive shape, England took the victory and attention switched from the team to the medical men.

The start of a genuine revival? Certainly, there was a humility about England’s selection in several positions which admitted bad selections in the past. Better late than never. It is still just possible that England can have a loud say in New Zealand’s spring.

Star man: James Haskell (England)

Scorers: Ireland: Pens: O’Gara (3)

England: Tries: Tuilagi 4, Armitage 45 Cons: Wilkinson (2)

Pens: Wilkinson (2) Yellow card: England: Ashton

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

Attendance: 48,523

Ireland: G Murphy; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy, A Trimble (F McFadden 71min); R O’Gara (J Sexton 61min), E Reddan (C Murray 61min); C Healy (T Court 70min), J Flannery (R Best 50min), M Ross, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell, S Ferris, D Wallace (D Leamy 21min), J Heaslip (D Ryan 34min).

England: B Foden; C Ashton, M Tuilagi, M Tindall (T Flood 74min), M Cueto (D Armitage 21min); J Wilkinson, R Wigglesworth; A Sheridan (M Stevens 56min), S Thompson (D Hartley 51min), D Cole, L Deacon (S Shaw 62min), C Lawes, T Croft, H Fourie (T Palmer 21min), J Haskell.

August 6th
All Blacks 30 V Wallabies 15 (Auckland, Tri Nations 2011)
England 23 V Wales 19 (Twickenham, 'Friendly' 2011)

This is a copied Stephen Jones  article from the Sunday Times in London 7 August 2011. Rupert Murdoch, come and get us if you can be bothered (but we suspect, you have bigger fish to fry).

In the great garment debate, it is difficult to work out who emerged looking the more ludicrous.

Was it England, for their fatuitous decision to play in a black kit at Twickenham in front of 82,000 fans, the majority of whom were supporting them avidly, and at some cost, by wearing England white? Or was it the New Zealanders, with their pathetic and affronted reaction, as if the colour black is something on which New Zealand have a world copyright in life and sport?

It was also difficult to work out which of England or Wales can look back with most satisfaction on this grim encounter; this homage to the finance directors of the Unions who demand big internationals under the looming shadow of the World Cup — and who pay a different kind of price with the risk of injury. Lewis Moody duly limped off with an injury that did not appear to be serious and poor Morgan Stoddart was carried off on a stretcher.

But it is even more ludicrous for team management to claim that these summer matches are to provide tie-breakers for the World Cup squad. If, after about 40 international rugby matches since the last World Cup, and after interminable months in camp and all the video technology in the world, then Martin Johnson and Warren Gatland do not know precisely their top 30, then their ability to pick their own noses must be seriously in doubt.

The great Jonny Wilkinson Debate rambles on, for the illustrious Toulon hero played with accuracy but not with flair, with wonderful kicking but not with alacrity in his passing nor leadership of the line. And if England, for some reason, are still struggling with conundrums then this game solved very few apart from that Steve Walsh, the referee, proved to have an abysmal match. Manu Tuilagi had some impressive moments but you still feel that a clever midfield could leave him ruthlessly exposed when his naivety gets the better of him. The best news was up front where, admittedly against a feeble Wales front row, Matt Stevens was outstanding and England were generally on top.

But for all that, it took desperate England defence to salvage the game and if you really want to compare teams in black on the day, then England come out miserably behind. Compared to the pace, power and depth in the TriNations match between New Zealand and Australia, England were cripplingly pedestrian, flat and bloated.

Indeed, in many ways it was typical England — the odd early flash and the traditional meaty effort, but then interminable periods where the team appeared to lack direction, freshness, focus and leadership. Nobody appeared to be issuing orders during the period of Welsh ascendancy in the second half. England played as they usually play, as if shackled in the mind.
England must rigorously examine their younger players and they must not fall into the traditional England trap of choosing those who have shown flashes of brilliance at the expense of those who can operate in the knockout stages of a World Cup.

Tuilagi deserves another chance in Cardiff next week because, admittedly, he is a late-runner whose prowess at the top level has been largely unsuspected until recently. But apart from that, it is now time for Johnson to draft in the old sweats and above all to start firing up a proper English international pack, one that has authority and can take on the likes of New Zealand, not at their own game but at England’s game. After that, the pace and depth can be added.

Perhaps conversely, the man under most pressure in the British rugby scene at the moment is not Johnson, but Gatland. England are not a great side and it is fanciful to expect them to become one in time for this World Cup — even though they had four years’ notice that the tournament had been arranged, and even though they have spent millions on their preparation.

Gatland is in a difficult position because he has more talent at his disposal, he has fewer players wearing the mental shackles and somewhere in there he has a squad to make an impact on the tournament. But does he have the boldness and the speculative nature to go bull-headed and grasp his destiny? The Welsh back division were significantly more impressive than that of England, even with the shocking late withdrawal of Stephen Jones, and here Gatland’s selection must again be called into question.

Wales have five fly-halves who would all be good enough to make the England squad but Gatland had none of them on the bench.

He does have class at his disposal. He has Lee Byrne, Gavin Henson and James Hook to bring in. He knows that Shane Williams and the superb Mike Phillips now have another big game under their belts as their form revives. The two world-class props in Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins are on stand-by and he now must also give the gigantic Luke Charteris a run instead of Alun Wyn Jones at lock.
Gatland has a magnificent chance to electrify Cardiff and the World Cup campaign by picking a powerful full team for the return fixture at the Millennium stadium on Saturday.

Wales have it in them to play a game of more devil and effectiveness than England can dream of. Over to you, Warren.


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slugso said...

Lord Sphincter rides again!

What an ass. I fond it strange we’ll ban anyone with even tenuous Fijian military ties, yet this twat will get in ti NZ for the RWC.

Oh, the ABs played very well did they not?

Nursedude said...


Rod said...

England; In view of our English brethren’s view of England’s chances at the WRC, we concur, it should be remembered that although England invent most sports and indeed occasionally fluke a win, they are normally not contenders of note in any of them. This despite the UK tabloids building up their faint chances on a flimsy scaffold of patriotic and hysterical (historical?) fervour. The chariots that swing low..are they built by the UK Auto industry? They may well be rusty Austins.

In truth most NZ and Australian fans are unaware that England have actually qualified the forthcoming WRC (they did have to qualify, like Russia or Namibia didn’t they?) and they are unlikely to lose too much slumber time worrying about the threat they might pose.

Although Jonny Wilkinson may have oiled his zimmer-frame in readiness for action he perhaps would be well advised to retire to Bournemouth or Torquay and spend his days boring other geriatrics with his tales of ancient battles. This might save him acute embarrassment come September.

England have somehow contrived to end up in the weakest pool (no doubt via FIfa style ‘negotiations’ involving bulging paper bags) but they will face the French in the QF match where the cheese eating surrender monkeys will bedazzle them with garlic breath and Gaelic flair and win (with 4 late –unconverted- tries v England’s 6 penalty kicks).

So while we welcome any hopeful northern hemisphere visitors with their knotted hankies and their version of the haka (called Morris dancing) , they should take the shorter 4 week down-under excursion rather than the 8 week one. After all they don’t want be kicking their heels and nursing their hangovers at a OZ/NZ final do they?

Edmund said...

@ Rod...

I cannot tell if your post is meant to be funny or mean spirited but I will give you the benefit of the doubt. Just a few points - Stephen Jones writes for an English paper but he is Welsh, that is a significant fact. I would imagine Australia will be concerned at the prospect of facing England. I cannot remember the last time we lost to them. I will go further, we obliterated them last Autumn. Otherwise I think your points are not without merit. I'm not a betting man but if I were I would probably fancy putting a few pounds down on a NZ/OZ final. May the best team win.

Ferdy said...

It sounds to me like Rob - whoever he may be - might have had a few when he wrote that.

Ace Ualesi said...

You people abuse Rob for his honest opinion about the deluded UK tabloids and yet when Stephen Jones starts spouting hogwash about the All Blacks (win or lose), as he does, you people just accept it. WTF?!!