England look in the best shape of the home nations to do something at RWC 2011 in New Zealand, but problems up front for the Celtic sides point to a whole load of trouble against the big boys from the Southern Hemisphere...
Movement over Muscle
The balance of power in World Rugby still very much lies with the Southern Hemisphere nations. To argue otherwise is pure folly. When they shift their focus we quickly tilt along after them. Terrified the rope bridge that traverses the gulf in class between us and them will snap, Temple of Doom style, and leave us flailing with the crocodiles (or Georgia as they’re otherwise known). This copycat approach has been very apparent during the build up to this World Cup. In the past 12 months or so the Super 15 sides have started focussing on mobility over bulk. Their players noticeably leaner and fitter. The resulting manoeuvrability is allowing them to stretch play, expose gaps then mercilessly flood in with numbers to secure quick ball and create line breaks. The success of this approach has invariably transferred to International level and our home nations have apparently followed suit. A good example of this is to compare tactics to this time four years ago when the corresponding Scotland v Ireland warm up game at Murrayfield resembled a field full of bodybuilders wrestling over the last chicken breast in the shop. Not so now. A tangible shift in body shape, squad fitness and an obvious desire to move the point of attack around should hopefully see some more exciting rugby than the kick and grunt of 2007.
Fragile Celtic Front
All the mobility and fleet footed magic in the world will not help anyone come scrum time and the warm up matches have raised concerns about the solidity of the scrums of the Celtic nations. August saw Scotland bulldozed by Italy, the Welsh tight five looking overwhelmed by England and, at times, by a very rusty Argentina. Ireland too struggled with France who, to be fair, are probably one of the best scrummaging nations in the world right now and also with England in Dublin. It’s a crucial area of the game and the lack of quality front cover beyond the first choice must be a concern for Declan Kidney, Andy Robinson and Warren Gatland respectively. Ireland have only listed four props in their squad and the most destructive of these, Cian Healy, is struggling. Likewise, the damage man for Wales, Gethin Jenkins has also not played a lot of rugby recently nor has Euan Murray of Scotland. Injuries to key front row personnel will leave these nations toiling to produce a competitive set piece. This could ultimately prove fatal to the aspirations of all three. England on the other hand have genuine competition for places in their front row Their centres are a different story...
Kick offs have become a hugely important set piece. Most teams have always practiced their kick offs but what we now see is specific strategies.
Line outs and set moves in the backs all quite basic didn’t you think? The lack of any incisive or complicated calls in these areas leads me to believe the coaches are holding back on exposing their play books for the scrutiny of video analysis. These warm up games have allowed the coaches to give their players some game time, finalise their squads and build some unity ahead of the dogfight in NZ but they’ve also been an exercise in bluff too. By only using 25-30% of their line out moves or only a few of their staple attacking moves they can keep some strike moves up their sleeve for the big stage. In particular the line outs are important, with anything between 20-40 in a game and an average of 11-18 metres gained by each successful one (whether against the head or not) it’s a fruitful area for both possession and territory. Whilst this conservative poker-faced approach is frustrating for the fans it could prove a shrewd move over the next six weeks or so. Let’s hope so.
Whilst the emergence of Sevens as a successful derivative of the ‘big’ game has helped develop Rugby as a global sport and expanded its appeal into new territories it has also had a subtle but significant impact on the fifteen aside version too. Namely that kick offs have become a hugely important set piece. Most teams have always practiced their kick offs but what we now see is specific strategies, team selections and tactical decisions being influenced by re-starts. Scotland, for example, favour the sevens style of having a strike runner on their own kick off, usually Sean Lamont wilding into the opposition pack looking for a tap back to one of the quicker back row. England are putting up two pods on receipt whilst Wales are dropping their front row closer to the touchline to force receivers in field. RWC 2011 is shaping up to see kick-offs and drop outs finally achieve parity with scrums and line outs as a crucial set piece for teams.
World Class is Permanent
Of all the home nations England look in best shape to do something at RWC 2011. No surprises there then but they seem to have a squad that could potentially stand the rigours of New Zealand in the mud. The loss to Wales cannot be overlooked but the fact that they decided to kick for touch with all five of their penalties in the closing 20 minutes of that game in Cardiff should tell you they were there to get some rugby, not grind out a win. The English backs must be a concern but Tuilagi at least looks destructive. Wales will rightly feel positive about their build up and in James Hook, Sam Warburton and the very exciting George North they definitely have some real talent. However, injuries in key areas could scupper them and they are sometimes left wanting for ideas in attack. Speaking of which, Scotland are still suffering with their perennial affliction of not being able to cross the try line. Again they will need to be lucky with injuries to progress but lack of incision going forward must be their biggest concern. At least they’re not Ireland though who have had a wretched run of losses in their warm up games. Looking light up front and uncharacteristically erratic in defence they couldn’t be going to NZ in worse shape. Winning in New Zealand is a big ask at the best of times but let’s hope all the home nations find some form, for the sake of Northern Hemisphere Rugby if nothing else.
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