Rugby World Cup 2011: The Good, Bad And Ugly Of Round One

England are crying out for a maverick, Wales played better than anyone to lose, Scotland's giant pack fell to pieces and Ireland were plain boring...
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The good of Wales, the bad of Scotland and the ugly of England were joined by their Irish stepbrother, ’the boring’, as all the home nations rumbled into action this weekend. Victories for three out of four gave a skewed review of proceedings as ironically it was the beaten Welsh who played the best rugby out of the lot. Pacy and aggressive they shook the world champs and very nearly scored a tremendous knock out in the final round. The look of shock on Pierre Spies' face as he was knocked back trying to tackle George North in full flight painted a microcosmic picture of the whole game. The Welsh combination of quick ball, granite defence and huge self-belief nearly took them all the way but alas ‘Das Jammy Boks’ pulled it out the fire in the final fling. On the basis of this performance and their warm up games Warren Gatland and his men should go well in this World Cup.

England on the other hand looked much less assured. With their cheeky black kit and under cooked meat and veg rugby they look like children dressing up in their mother’s pearls and high heels. A disrespectful and childish choice of kit only made more stupid by the peeling numbers on their backs after five minutes. The shark-eyed Nike executives were probably pressing the emergency button under their desks and screaming ‘Kit Failure! Kit Failure!’ as they watched on in horror.

From Matt Stevens sniggering at the Moari warrior as he came out the tunnel to Phil Vickery giving it the full Harry Carpenter treatment after Ben Youngs try it was all quite shamefully arrogant. Tactically limited too, attempting to play disciplined, powerful, restrictive rugby and then put them to the Johnny Wilkinson Sword. Problem was that Jonny England was having a bad day, no Smarties for him on Saturday night. Kicks not just missed but hurled very wide, probably exhausted after sitting up all night trying to make sense of his manager’s tactical moves. Confused into restlessness by a laminated A4 sheet left under his golden pillow depicting crude cave paintings of disproportionately huge stick men as forwards and cock graffiti and arrows for the backs.

At times on Saturday I swear Danny Cipriani’s ghost could be occasionally seen at 10. But Johnson still thinks he’s a rebel, one of those guys at school who dyed his hair, and sneered at Martin and his boring, bullying chat. A Rolling Stone, a Sex Pistol. No room for mavericks in Big Martins Presbyterian coal mining community of rugby and scrums.  Johnson himself looking like Woodward’s monster caged in a perspex box, dressed up in a ridiculous thin tie and preppy sky blue shirt and tormented remorselessly. Ear piece constantly piping in enraging sounds, like political discussions with James Whale or the Greatest Hits of Kula Shaker perhaps, as he bangs on the desk, punches the air and generally goes through the gamut of emotions he is clearly programed not to feel.

On the basis of this performance and their warm up games Warren Gatland and his men should go well in this World Cup.

On the pitch his golden boys flail and bore. Brand Haskell doing his best impression of a non-world class flanker, quietly outclassed by Toms Croft and Palmer.  Romania and Georgia will be beaten but on this evidence England are careering down a very short pier.

The real winners of the England v Argentina game were Scotland who must not only be relishing facing a shaky England but also hugely thankful to the English for  breaking  a number of Argentina’s key men including the mercurial Contepomi. Who, until injury, looked like the stand-off and go to man that Jonny Wilko can only dream of emulating.

Speaking of Scotland they struggled to inject enough pace and impetuous to break down the Romanians. Confidence was pushed back inside themselves for the middle 60 minutes as their giant pack went to pieces. Scrummed off the ball after only ten minutes you could visibly see them retreat mentally. Danielli managed to rescue things in the last ten proving that there’s no real substitute for pace in World Rugby.  Romania pressured them with their Partick Thistle kit, huge scrum, and rolling mauls. Rugby from five years ago cruelly exposing Scotland’s weaknesses. The Scottish scrum has been struggling for months now and Argentina, Georgia and England must be rubbing their ham-fisted, boxing-glove-like, front row mitts together in glee at the prospect of dominating the set-piece battle. Can a team with no scrum compensate enough in other areas to progress? Not without being able to play at a speed that troubles teams in other areas. Not looking good.

Then to Ireland. Pedestrian and flat footed they ground out a dull victory against the dignified Americans. Greatly relieved to get a win I’m sure but it was a tedious and wholly uninspiring win at that. Admitted to as much by their curious maths teacher of a head coach, Declan Kidney, who channels suburban boredom in a way which tricks your minds into thinking ITV has segued into a regional news bulletin without you noticing. The USA were impressive, especially their WWE flanker Todd Clever who brought Michael Bolton to the party and played very well on a difficult and emotional day for the whole American nation.

So, a slow start for England, Scotland and Ireland then but at least Wales can take away some pride from their performance, if not the points. Bring on the next round of games.

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