Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Much better

9 years ago I was sitting in a bar in Beira drinking Manica beer from litre bottles and watching an inspired England take the All Blacks down to the wire in a game that eventually ended in a draw - 26-26 I think. England's performance was directed by the fly half, who controlled the back line, kicked his points and generally bossed the show. 5 years later I watched the same player, subbed on in a World Cup quarter-final, moved to inside centre, calm down the fretful Jonny Wilkinson and put in a mature performance that helped England to the semis, and later of course to the final.
On Sunday I watched him provide a sense of purpose and unity to the England back row that has been missing since that night in Sydney 4 years ago. Mike Catt, despite being as old as the hills, and despite some dodgy handling early doors, played out of his skin. David Strettle, the only good news to come out of Croke Park since (I'm not making this joke, you'll have to imagine it), was again superb, Toby Flood quick controlled and solid and Shane Geraghty provided a moment of the sublime. Oh, and the pack turned up to play, which was more than last time.
So reasons to be more cheerful. When Jonny recovers from his hamstring twinge, I'm not sure he's automatic for fly-half. But Catt's only got one more season left (generously) . I've said for a while that I'd be inclined to play Jonny at inside centre, with a more of a playmaker at fly. Flood and Geraghty, Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson - England aren't short of playmakers all of a sudden are they?


Blogger bgprior said...


Reckon you must be one of the jessies, the way you give most of the credit to the backs. Remember, forwards decide who wins the game, the backs decide by how much. And that starts with the front-row. Sadly (and I speak as a Wasps supporter), Vickery is not back to his best. Playing our strongest scrummaging front-row let Ashton play a slightly lighter but more dynamic second-row, which freed up the No.8 spot to allow a faster (of mind and foot) back-row. That delivered the go-forward in the contact, quick possession and turn-over ball that England have been missing. Stroke of genius moving Corry to 2nd row, if you ask me. He's always been more about good honest grunt than guile, which makes him a more natural replacement for Johno than for Lol, the smartest player I have ever seen.

It's a big headache what to do about Vickery, though. Happily not for next week (still injured), but beyond that he needs to find his form or Ashton needs to replace him. Given a few games to bed in (Catty as caretaker until after the World Cup?), my vote is for Tom Rees. Saw him at the Middlesex 7s a couple of years ago, and he's clearly a born leader.

What a weekend, though. And not just for the England game. You can't beat tight games and surprise results (except maybe Wales going down again, but that's more evidence that you can't do without a strong scrum, however talented your backs and back-row are).

1:39 am  
Blogger Tim J said...

Unashamedly one of the jessies, lacking the grunt and go-forward required. It's true that fly-halfs can't play without the space given by a successful pack and that centrs can't play without regular quick ball. Without a good scrum, teams lose - just look at Australia.

I always thought Vickery was at his ebst as an impact player - coming off the bench for the last half hour to wreak havoc like he did in Wellington. I also agree that Corry at lock was a revelation - he's always been a trier, but never had the low cunning helpful at no 8. Is Rees too young to skipper at 23? Maybe, but it might be worth a try after Catty finally hangs up his boots.

11:43 am  
Blogger bgprior said...

Will Carling was pretty young (23) when they made him captain (I remember, because it was the first time I felt old, Will being younger than me), and Lol was only 25. Seems to have worked rather better than when they have given it to old lags like Phil de Glanville (28), Jason Robinson (30), Martin Corry (32) or Phil Vickery (31). Though there is a certain Martin Johnson (29) who might have something to say about that (then again, he had already captained the Lions by the age of 27). Probably more about temperament and talent than age, but I reckon Rees has got it all (and the best teacher in the game). Just needs not to be dropped in at the deep end, like we tend to do to our promising sportsmen. And back-row captains have a couple of advantages: (a) they should be close to both forward and back-play, which gives them a good view of what's going on and the opportunity to keep jollying everyone along, and (b) other back-row players know there are still two places up for grabs. If you're an English tight-head prop at the moment, what are you supposed to do with your ambitions?

7:12 pm  

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