Chris Robshaw just gave his critics the finger.
I want to talk about English rugby. Specifically English rugby right now. 2015 saw a “disastrous” World Cup for England, but now we’re on the cusp of the 2016 SixNations.
Disclaimer: this is nothing to do with tech or the web or even design. This post is about sport. Yes, sport. No, I’m not a bro-grammer, and no, I don’t play any sport at all myself. I sit in front of computers all day. Exercise is for other people. Besides, I’ve got all this cheese to eat…
Former head coach Stuart Lancaster and his entourage have gone (fairly or unfairly), tails between their legs. New head coach Eddie Jones is gathering his team around him, and names his 33-man squad on Wednesday. How much will Jones have shaken up the squad? For players in the Premiership, making a good impression over the last few weeks has been crucial.
What went wrong?
There’s been plenty of morbid dissection of England’s World Cup “debacle”. It was the first time a host-nation has gone out at the pool stages. It was the first time England have failed to reach even the quarter-finals. It even eclipsed the embarrassment of the squad’s performance in the 2011 World Cup.
Much of the postmortem vitriol centered around player selection and coach Lancaster’s tactical strategy. I don’t agree. I think the result was due to three things. 1. We were unlucky. 2. We choked. 3. Australia.
1. We were unlucky.
The pools in the World Cup tend to each have a two strong teams and three minnows. The minnows have an outside chance of beating the big-boys, but not much. Which teams make it through to the knock-out stage is usually a foregone conclusion.
For the 2015 pool stage, England (big-boys) did not get the luck of the draw. We were alongside Fiji (minnows), Uruguay (minnows), Wales (big-boys), and Australia (big-boys). Yep, three world-class teams in one pool, and only two places in the tournament to play for.
This was set in stone back in 2012, when the draw was set based on current rankings at the time. We’d just lost to New Zealand (the best team in the world) and Australia were not on top-form either.
2. We choked.
Our first crunch-match of the 2015 World Cup was against Wales. The Welsh devotion to rugby is second only to New Zealand. They’re fierce rivals and England’s arch-nemesis in times of crisis. England ranks higher and performs better than Wales at all times. Unless, of course, we’re actually playing Wales, when we fall to pieces.
England and Wales had already had a hyped-to-high-heaven standoff in the 2015 6 Nations. England came out on top of that one, so Wales had it all to play for come October. We should have won. Their standard of play was pretty poor, and about 90% of their team had to leave the pitch due to injuries. (Not an accurate percentage. It just felt like it.)
But somehow they beat us. A gutsy death-or-glory kick to the corner by England gave Wales a chance to show off their defensive abilities. The England driving-maul was no match for the determined Welshmen. Even when England clawed back almost the exact-same attacking platform, it was the same result. Death-or-glory does sometimes result in death.
For the 2015 World Cup, Australia were riding the wave of an impressive streak of form. New coach Micheal Cheika had transformed his team’s fortunes. The Wallabies entered the tournament as the highest-ranked side in the southern hemisphere. Given my myopic focus on European rugby, I’d completely overlooked them. Boy, was I in for a shock.
Watching their majestic path to the final highlighted something I’d never fully appreciated before: the power of the back row to change the flow of a game. The reason Australia were so untouchable was their ability to win the ball back from the opposition with alarming regularity. And it was the back row doing the hard work.
At every breakdown, either Michael Hooper or David Pocock (or both together) were getting over the ball and getting it back for the Aussies. These turnovers were what made the Wallabies so unstoppable. They only came unstuck in the final, when they came up against flanker-extraordinaire Richie McCaw.
Chris Robshaw: 6 or 7?
I’ve long been a fan of (former?) England captain Chris Robshaw. He has shown immense strength of character in some tough scrapes, and his defensive record is unimpeachable. He consistently makes more tackles than anyone else, putting his body on the line time after time.
Following the 2015 World Cup exit, he was the focus of much criticism and doubt. The offensive work of Hooper and Pocock was fresh in everyone’s memory. Why weren’t the English flankers equally offensive?
I think that pouring scorn on the England breakdown tactics after the event is unhelpful. But it was a hard lesson from some of the best players in the world. If England want to keep their place in the top-flight of world rugby, they need to up their game in the back row.
6,7 & 8 all need to be looking for offensive options, but at the same time not let-up on their defensive game. A tough ask, for sure, but if you want to be the best in the world you have to earn it.
So with the selector’s eyes watching, defensive-master Robshaw is upping his offensive presence. Last night’s barnstormer between Harlequins and Saracens was epic. The Quins’ victory was far-from certain right up until the closing minutes. And guess who won back the ball at the 78th minute to set up a killer score? Yep: Robshaw.