Oval Talk

England short of time

Oval Talk

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Oval Talk recently caught a TV re-run of a 'classic' encounter between England and South Africa, and could not help but make some comparisons with Martin Johnson's current side.

The match in question was the second Test of England's 2000 tour to South Africa. England had lost the first in Pretoria 18-13 in controversial circumstances, but Sir Clive Woodward's team gained their revenge a week later with a 27-22 victory in Bloemfontein.

Former players and commentators have claimed that was the day that Woodward's England came of age.

They may not have scored any tries but they played a fast, flowing game that the Boks struggled to contain, before resisting a brutal late onslaught to claim a share of the series.

Three years later England would lift the World Cup and their heroics in Bloemfontein were clearly a crucial step on the path to glory.

So what were the main differences between that England squad skippered by Johnson and the one he currently manages?

Squad strength

Of that team that won in Bloemfontein, only seven would go on to start the World Cup final, which points to a far stronger group of players available to Woodward.

Indeed, the only combination that would stay together as first choice for the World Cup was the back row of Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill.

Woodward was still in the process of settling on his preferred XV and injuries played a part on who started in the Bloemfontein Test; but the fact remains that he had the strength to win in South Africa with a side very different from the 2003 champions.

The current England have shown they can compete with the game's elite when they have their best XV on the field, but do they have the depth for a genuine World Cup challenge?

They will have to make full use of a squad of 30 if they are to get through a pool that includes Argentina and Scotland and then go on to leave their mark on the tournament - that was the case in 2003 and the same will be in true in 2011.

At present England are still too reliant on certain players in certain positions - Tom Croft, Andrew Sheridan and Nick Easter to name a few - and if they were to go down with injury it is questionable whether their replacements are good enough.

Johnson is well aware of the situation, but whether he has enough time and games to solve the situation is doubtful. Indeed, injuries could be the biggest factor in whether England do well in New Zealand next year.

Muscularity

England lost the physical battle when they were well beaten by South Africa last month. At times, it looked like men against boys up front. It is an aspect of the game England are not used to coming second best in, and they were clearly shocked by the Boks' power game.

Playing South Africa is always a brutal contest. In the Bloemfontein Test, the likes of Jason Leonard, Julian White, Phil Greening, Danny Grewcock, the back row and Johnson himself (who it has to be said was magnificent) stepped up and met fire with fire.

To be fair to the current England, it is not often they are bettered in the set-piece, but at Twickenham last month they perhaps lost sight of their traditional strengths - and the obvious threat to come from Boks - and focused too much on their new attacking approach.

It was a harsh lesson and they will have to learn from the experience if they are to continue their development. France and Wales, and to a lesser degree Italy and Scotland, have powerful packs and England's cannot afford to be found wanting again in the Six Nations.

Footballing skills

It may seem a tad unfair after some of the decent rugby England have produced this year, but OT is still concerned by the basic skills of Johnson's side.

Chris Ashton, Mark Cueto and Ben Foden are wonderful attacking players, but not what OT would call particularly 'natural' footballers. Shontayne Hape seems to always have time when he has the ball and is developing into a key player, but he does not possess a kicking game of note.

Yet in Bloemfontein, England had the likes of Mike Catt, Kieran Bracken, Austin Healy and Matt Perry to assist a youthful Jonny Wilkinson, while Dallaglio, Back and Hill were more than a match for their opposite numbers when it came to the ball in hand - as was Johnson.

This year England have created far more chances than they have finished off and their inability to take full advantage of basic overlaps, for example, remains a worry.  

Thankfully the stodge produced in the early days of Johnson's tenure under skipper Steve Borthwick is a thing of the past, but there is still something of a 'manufactured' feel about the modern England player.

No doubt the Premiership coaching is partly to blame, but OT hopes the skills of the likes of Alex Goode, Shane Geraghty and James Simpson-Daniel are not forgotten in the run up to 2011.

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