The 2004/5 season was a bad year for English international rugby. Those heady days of 2003 down under and Jonny Wilkinson's last minute drop goal seemed a long way away as Wales completed a marvellous year by beating us 11-9 in the final match of the six nations.It started well enough, business as usual in a 70-0 walloping of the Canadians and on the back of that, a hard fought, but impressive 32-16 win over the springboks.
From there a mistake ridden performance against Australia allowed the Aussies a 19-21 win at Twickenham. In all, the autumn international results were not overly worrying. However the performance against Australia exposed some serious weaknesses in the England team which continued into the six nations in early 2005. Handling in particular was appalling and the discipline of the side seemed to have gone, giving away needless penalties in areas we should not have. The outcome of this was that the England team finished fourth in the table, our worst placing for many years, and headed into the summer with a lot of work to do.
So it was with a sense of trepidation that England fans sat down to watch the opening autumn international of the 2005/6 season against Australia, once again without the talismanic injury prone Jonny Wilkinson. A solid enough performance with English forwards dominating the game, but once again our backs looked short of ideas and were often to flat to break the aussies line. Andrew Sheridan was outstanding at prop as the English scrum destroyed the Australians, but too often the backs were unable to capitalise on good ball won. The big plus of this game, apart from the emergence of Sheridan as a world class player, was the assuredness of the performance of Charlie Hodgson, criticised for his kicking misses the previous year. At last it seemed as if England had a capable kicking replacement for the now mythical Jonny Wilkinson.A good start, but the real test was still to come, having beaten probably the weakest Australian touring side for many years, England needed to step up a gear against the All Blacks a week later.
New Zealand fielded their strongest side, and it was very impressive. Characterised by the fact that they could afford to leave players such as Joe Rokococo on the bench until the 80 th minute called for a spot of time wasting!.England competed well and it was a close game with England striking early through forward power as Martin Corry drove over the line. For the rest of the game, England struggled to restrain the powerful running of the kiwi's and an England back line picked for its tackling ability rather than its flair had plenty of work to do in that department. The referee had a big part to play in this match and seemed to set his stall out to not allow the English forwards to dominate the game, but in the second half yellow carded two kiwis for repeated scrum infringements as they struggled to contain the English pack.
Overall the 19-23 score line was probably a fair reflection of the match.The following weeks run out for some of the squad players against Samoa was pretty predictable fare. England dominating the match and could have had more points but for some poor decision making in trying to spin the ball wide too early.So going into the six nations England seem to be in better shape than this time last year, yet still there are still several components lacking in the current line up.
Martin Corry has proved a good tactical captain but is certainly no Martin Johnson or Lawrence Dallaglio. There is a visible lack of this type of character on the field, someone who is capable of taking the game by the scruff of the neck either by sheer force, or force of personality. Anyone who saw the emotion on Lawrence Dallaglio's face before the world cup final will know exactly what this means. Whilst the forwards are performing well, there are still question marks over the throwing of Steve Thompson, who consistently fails to hit his line out calls and probably only retains his place on the strength of his all round ability.In the backs, Mike Tindall retains his place as one of the best tackling centres in world rugby, but at times his handling and decision making are woeful. The unfortunate James Simpson Daniel who does at least provide some of the missing attacking flair managed only half of the match against Samoa before being injured.
England are lacking that crucial element of attaching flair in the middle of the park. They need to find someone who can break the opposition line with moments of individual brilliance, such as the recently retired Jason Robinson. There are several contenders for this position yet to be given a serious run in the team as the England management under Andy Robinson seem to be more concerned about loosing individual matches than building a team to defend the world title in two years time. At scrum half England have, in Harry Ellis, finally found a replacement for the aging limbs of Matt Dawson and the future looks bright for Harry with Matt perhaps being retained as the experience in the squad.There is a serious danger that this England team will once again be undone in the six nations this coming year with the French (provided they can hold their discipline) looking very strong. It will take a huge increase in creativity and consistency for England to regain their position as the northern hemisphere champions and perhaps the autumn internationals should have been used to blood new players, regardless of results..John Millward http://www.lazybugger.
By: John Millward