Clueless England need Answers Ahead of All-Black Test

Tom Russell gives his view on the autumn test series and England’s ageing test team

England 9-18 Australia Martin Johnson, the 2003 World Cup winning legend, has so far failed to produce anything like the England team we all dreamed of when he took over the reins a year and a half ago.  England may be suffering from serious injury problems in the pack, but their display against the Aussies was disappointing nevertheless.  They started well with a drop goal by golden boy Jonny Wilkinson that roused the home crowd, followed by two successful penalties and an effort from the half-way line that was denied only by the post.  The world’s all-time record points scorer in international rugby was back at Twickenham. Wilkinson looked as though he’d never been away, putting in some crunching tackles and generally living up to the glowing reputation that made Australian man-of-the-match, Genia, say afterwards, ‘I couldn’t believe I shook his hand!’  Lewis ‘mad-dog’ Moody’s performance was also encouraging, and Haskell, Lawes, Hodgson and Hartley did well coming off the bench. But the bottom line is England were again simply not good enough.  With Australia on a poor run of form – six losses in their last seven matches – and missing former captain and influential centre Sterling Mortlock, England should have done better. Once again they relied too much on kicking, a problem perhaps compounded by the decision to play two fly-half specialists – the England backs looked reluctant to run the ball – leaving Australia free to attack England’s (surprisingly bad) defence, with predictable results. So what next for England? Even this depleted team should outclass Argentina, although   England might lose if they let Argentina play the conservative brand of rugby that saw them finish third in the 2007 World Cup.  The Pumas may be ranked sixth in the world, but England’s players are far more talented.  Argentina have a clear advantage in the scrum, but the England line-out functioned well last weekend and if they make use of their backs they should come through, especially with Wilkinson playing.  England’s front row shortage is becoming increasingly dire, and an injury to either of the starting props will force England to resort to youngster Doran-Jones who has played only three full games for his club.  In the long term though, England have more serious problems.  The All Blacks will win comfortably even in their current state and England will have to go back to the drawing board.  While other teams may already be allocating seats on the plane to New Zealand in 2011, no one could come close to naming an England XV for the next World Cup.  Many of England’s finest are older players (Moody, Shaw, Vickery, White, Easter, Tindall, Borthwick, Wilkinson and Sheridan are all over 30) and while many of them will make the next World Cup, if they keep playing much longer England’s line-up is in danger of looking increasingly like a team drawn from the local geriatric ward.  Wilkinson was an England fixture at the age of 19 and many of these guys have been around a long time, even since 2003.  Where will the next generation come from? They’re certainly not a regular part of the England set up right now. What will we do when the products of Sir Clive Woodward’s reign finally dry up?  Isn’t it time we cared less about saving face and keeping the score low and more about playing with flair and skill?  England should be willing to take risks on talented players and when they screw up we need to show faith in them.  If Johnson is willing to do this, maybe he’ll eventually have a team that could rival the one he led to glory back in 2003.