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English Rugby: Good Vibrations…

March 4, 2011

Oh dear, the term ‘Grand Slam’ has been mentioned. Not only that, but phrases along the lines of ‘potential World Cup winners’ too have been mooted. All on the back of just three Six Nations victories and a commendable mauling of Australia last November? Surely we’re just getting a tad carried away folks…

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Intriguingly though, it is easy to see why English rugby has been riding on the crest of one very optimistic wave lately. Assuming they can see off a thus-far disappointing Scottish side at Twickenham next weekend, England are just a victory in Dublin (over an Irish side that has been on a downward curve since its peak of two years ago) away from sealing a first Grand Slam in almost a decade. With no serious tests or tours prior to the World Cup in the autumn, there’s every chance England will head to New Zealand as the leading light of the Northern Hemisphere game. Not too bad a position to be in really…

The squad is approaching what can only be described as rude health. There appears to be strength and depth in most positions, a key feature of the 2003 World Cup winning side, and of widely-lauded New Zealand sides since. England are currently afforded the luxury of seating (amongst others) Matt Banahan, Jonny Wilkinson, Danny Care, Steve Thompson and the increasingly-impressive Alex Corbisiero on the bench, whilst there are further notable injury-enforced absentees in the form of Lewis Moody, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes – all of whom should return in time to compete for the Webb Ellis Trophy come September. Dylan Hartley is proving a clinical and efficient hooker, Tom Wood has impressed immeasurably in Moody’s absence, whilst the likes of Louis Deacon and James Haskell have started to churn out consistently eye-catching performances for their country.

England’s biggest boon perhaps has been the emergence of genuine world class players over the last year or so. Following their 2003 success, several big names retired (Martin Johnson and Neil Back amongst others), and there was quite a sizeable void that is only just starting to be filled. Nick Easter, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft (to name a few) – when fit, obviously – are dominating games in a manner that would have made the likes of the aforementioned duo proud. And this is before you even take Chris Ashton into consideration; what a revelation the swallow-diving 23-year-old has been since switching codes!

Toby Flood has comprehensively taken command of the #10 jersey. His kicking has improved considerably this season, and he now appears capable of implementing a number of different game-plans for England. In this Six Nations he has offered line-breaks and impressive distribution to go with solid defence, whilst when called upon to do so, he has kicked for territory with an astuteness and accuracy comparable to Ronan O’Gara in his pomp. Under Flood’s new-found commensurate direction, the previously static England back line now appears energised and genuinely dangerous when they choose to run the ball. It is statement enough that he keeps Johnny Wilkinson on the bench.

As a consequence of the improving playing standards throughout the squad, the side has a comfortable balance to it too. For every Ashton try there has been a Mike Tindall tackle; at times scintillating in attack, England are starting to prove just as resolute in defence. The victorious 2003 side was able to call upon the try-scoring exploits of Jason Robinson, Josh Lewsey, Will Greenwood and Ben Cohen (and co.), whilst balanced by a much-envied defence that was only beaten a handful of times in the entire tournament. That very same devastatingly-effective combination would appear to be growing in stature here.

Undoubtedly part of this is the fact that the English forwards are once again starting to dominate their encounters. There are great ground-coverers and fearless tacklers in their midst (Easter, Croft, Lawes), and a fair few decent ball-carriers too (Haskell has looked mightily threatening in the 2011 Six Nations). What a stark contrast across the forward and back departments to twelve months ago when England looked bereft of inspiration and devoid of ideas throughout their Six Nations campaign: ‘toothless in attack,’ was the commonly heard appraisal.

Furthermore, England are showing that they are able to win a variety of different types of game. They thrashed the lacklustre Italians, before doggedly grinding out a victory over the French; attritional rugby to go with the flamboyant champagne stuff – such ingrained versatility could prove invaluable in New Zealand this autumn. Johnson’s boys even had the nous and capacity to positively alter the game-plan against the French at half-time, producing a second-half performance that left them deserving winners.

And finally, another cause for optimism amongst English supporters with regards to the World Cup is that whilst England’s fortunes are undoubtedly on the rise, the majority of their rivals appear to be heading in the opposite direction. The French and Welsh (coach Warren Gatland has been under significant pressure lately) have been beaten, whilst the Irish are not a patch on their 2009 Grand Slam-winning side; Brian O’Driscoll is 32 and (just) starting to show it.

Following their 2007 success, the South Africans have lost their edge; spend too long at the top and there’s only one way to go. Argentina, perennial improvers, appear to have reached a plateau, whilst England’s comprehensive dismissal of Australia last November has prompted much soul-searching in Australian rugby circles. And then there’s New Zealand. Whilst it is impossible to begrudge them the favourites tag, not least with home advantage this time around, they are yet to shake the ‘chokers’ tag that has followed them around over the last few tournaments. The same could well happen again, and Johnson’s troops look well placed to capitalise should the opportunity arise.

However, despite all of these evident positives, it is mighty hard not to think we are getting ahead of ourselves a bit here. Johnno and Jonny might be downplaying talk of such triumphs, but Grand Slam and World Cup optimism is on the lips of every pundit and pub-goer in the country. Whilst the improvements in the English game are both credible and commendable, the lifespan of on-the-pitch success is in its relative infancy. The current form England are displaying is far from being a sustained period of success. Just yet, anyway.

Let alone worrying about the World Cup, which is not for another six months (!), even the Grand Slam is far from in the bag. It is widely known how much the Scots love to spoil an English party, and that’s before you even consider a first trip to the new Lansdowne Road (“Aviva Stadium”) for England. Combating nearly 50,000 Irishmen and women baying for Six Nations glory (and, undoubtedly, English blood) won’t be as easy as some will have you believe.

So here’s the crux of it. England are an improving side who appear to be gathering momentum nicely and at the right time, especially for a tilt at the World Cup. Completing the Grand Slam is far from set in stone (obviously), but should they continue to offer the same high standards shown thus far, they will be very well placed to claim that crown for the first time since 2003. There is the potential that this could develop into a highly memorable year for English rugby and its fans, but in all honesty they are not yet riding the crest of the wave. Rather, to further the surfing analogy, they lie on their boards paddling confidently having spied a monster of a wave, quietly optimistic of catching it in the most spectacular of fashions…

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