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Wales 19-9 England | Rugby World Cup warm-up match repor

August 14th, 2011 by · No Comments · Features

Wales 19-9 England

Some dress rehearsals offer welcome reassurance, others make you want to run screaming from the building. For Wales, Saturday’s warm-up game was a blessed relief, showcasing the fitness and warrior spirit they will need in New Zealand next month. For England it was a horror show, pure and simple. This was the bad old England, zombies in white sleep-walking towards World Cup oblivion. It was that depressing.

No wonder Martin Johnson looked as angry as he has after any game in his tenure, warning his squad to expect a distinctly grumpy debrief when they reconvene next Sunday. Johnson will also be taking this week off to enjoy a brief family break, though Mrs Johnson may struggle to relax with such a dark thundercloud hanging over the breakfast table. Was this a good time for a family holiday? “Not with me,” replied Johnson, grimly.

If England are as dull-witted in Ireland on Saturday week, the alarm bells really will start to sound. Apart from telegraphed inside balls to players programmed only to run into brick walls, there was no semblance of attacking shape or clever support running. Rugby is not about artistic impression but it does require poise, timing and quick thinking, as well as power. Where were the dummy runners and subtle angles? England had only the lead piping and little idea how to wield it, even in the 20 minutes of the second half when Wales were reduced to 14 men.

This struggle to turn possession into points is nothing new. The mind spools back to Perth 15 months ago, when the Australian scrum was destroyed and yet the Wallabies won 27-17. Yes, England kicked several potential three-pointers to the corners. Yes, the Welsh scramble defence was exceptional. But even in their period of most intense pressure, in the second quarter, England played cyclops rugby – powerful but devoid of imagination. For all their set-piece and territorial supremacy they got what they deserved.

It leaves Johnson with myriad issues. It is too late to start again: his final squad of 30, to be announced next Monday, is all but settled. He cannot rewind the clock to mid-June and reconsider England’s training methods, which seem to have sucked every single ounce of unpredictability or imagination from many of his players. The real thing lies ahead but creativity cannot be turned on like a tap.

At the heart of the matter is the breakdown, where England have been overrun by teams who commit more men to the tackle area. The Wales openside and captain, Sam Warburton, caused them serious problems for the second week running; numerous others around the world – Richie McCaw, David Pocock, Heinrich Brussöw and John Barclay – will be queuing up to do the same. All of them have presence over the ball.

“The guy who arrives at the breakdown first has got to be more effective, whoever that may be,” said Tom Wood, the admirably honest Northampton flanker. “Unfortunately, sometimes we play this wide game that stretches us and leaves us a bit bare at the breakdown. We have to decide what our focus is and when we come under pressure at the breakdowns, tighten up a bit. We realised that during the game but sometimes we are just a bit slow to adapt. Make no bones about it, we’ve got to be better. We’ve got a couple of weeks now until the Ireland game and we’ve got to put it right.”

Attacking-wise, this will be rather easier said than done. Even their closest friends and relatives would concede there is a stark contrast between the midfield triangle of Toby Flood, Shontayne Hape and Mike Tindall and their All Black and Wallaby counterparts. Tindall’s inability to draw defenders and put Matt Banahan and then Hape into space cost England two clear try-scoring opportunities; the contrast in ball-carrying threat and awareness between Hape and Gavin Henson, prior to the latter’s early departure, was unmistakeable.

Johnson may simply have to revert to type, recall Jonny Wilkinson, play slow and ugly and bore the opposition to death, relying on the odd counterattacking contribution from the back three. What a regression that would be from the high-tempo offloading game which tore up Australia at Twickenham last November; what an admission of managerial mediocrity.

Where the Wales coaches have changed mindsets, with the players having opted to avoid alchohol last week to ensure their clear-headedness in Cardiff, England are in danger of disappearing up a familiar blind alley.

“It hasn’t shaken my belief,” said Johnson. “If we hadn’t done anything we’d be disappointed but we dominated a large part of the game and created chances. It’s just frustrating. We’ve got to know when we’re in a battle at the breakdown and deal with it better.

“We’ve got a lot more in us in terms of our attacking game. If we finish off those breaks everyone’s [going to be] saying how good we are. We’ve just got to land the killer blow.”

There is no question that the return of Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs will help in that respect but England’s best XV look less and less clear-cut. Wilkinson, Manu Tuilagi and Riki Flutey could all play but here, collectively, Wales looked fitter. At Twickenham England were 20-7 up yet squeaked home 23-19; here Wales took the second-half 13-3, buoyed by James Hook’s 58th-minute try. If it really is to turn out all right on the night next month, England badly need to deliver in Dublin.

Wales: Hook (Ospreys); North (Scarlets), Roberts (Cardiff Blues), Henson (unattached; S Williams, Scarlets, 32), S Williams(Ospreys), Priestland (Scarlets; Brew, Dragons, h-t), Phillips (Bayonne); James (Ospreys; Bevington, Ospreys, 67), Burns(Newport Gwent Dragons; Bennett, Ospreys, 53), Mitchell (Ospreys; James, 77), Charteris (Dragons), AW Jones (Ospreys;Turnbull, Scarlets, 60), Lydiate (Dragons), Warburton (Blues, capt), Faletau (Dragons).

Try Hook Con Hook Pens Priestland 2, Hook 2.

England: Foden (Northampton); Banahan (Bath; Tindall, 74), Tindall (Gloucester, capt; D Armitage, London Irish, 59), Hape(London Irish), Cueto (Sale); Flood (Leicester; Hodgson, Saracens, 68), Wigglesworth (Saracens; Care, Harlequins, 30);Corbisiero (London Irish; Stevens, Saracens, 59), Thompson (Wasps; Mears, Bath, 59), Cole (Leicester) Deacon (Leicester;Palmer, Stade Français, 68), LawesWood (both Northampton), Fourie (Sale; Haskell, Ricoh Black Rams, 50), Easter(Harlequins).

Pens Flood 3.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland) Attendance 73,307. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & ConditionsMore Feeds

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