By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor at Eden Park
ON THE evidence of Saturday’s matches, the England-France semi-final will be a dire affair. Then again, both teams could spark into life!
France were abysmal as they lost to Tonga; they lacked ideas in attack and dropped off too many tackles. If Tonga’s handling had been better they might well have got close to scoring the four tries needed to knock Les Bleus out of the tournament.
If that match gave the southern hemisphere nothing to fear, then England did little to improve Europe’s World Cup prospects. Yes, they won their game against Scotland, a late Chris Ashton try snatching the victory, but the flaws were there for all to see.
Scotland came close to achieving the eight-point win necessary to secure a quarter-final place with their well-worked tactics, so what problems must England address going into the knockout stages?
1. Creativity – Or more accurately the lack of it. England’s game plan centres around trying to get over the gain-line from phase one, usually with a charge up the middle, and if that fails they opt for the up-and-under. Why constantly kick the ball away? They need to be more creative in their running game, bringing players in on the angle and having runners on the ball-carrier’s shoulder, as their one-dimensional style will not reap rewards. They should also be getting the ball away quicker from the breakdown and the scrum – too much dawdling allows opponents to reset their defensive line.
2. Discipline – Regardless of whether the referees’ decisions have always been right, England have given away far too many penalties in their last four games and must cut their infringements or they will make it easy for teams to build up leads. They must be quicker at adapting to the referee’s interpretations.
3. Kicking – Jonny Wilkinson now has a kicking success rate of less than 50% at this World Cup and the team’s reliability on his boot needs to be addressed. It could well be the pressure, rather than the balls, that is now affecting his performance. England either need to relieve some of that pressure by opting to go for the corner for the more difficult kicks or bring in Toby Flood, who slotted the toughest kick of the evening when converting Chris Ashton’s try.
4. Attitude – England lacked the same urgency as Scotland in the first half at Eden Park and can’t be caught napping like that in the knockout stages. France are a team who will pounce on the slightest opportunity to score a try and they have the playmakers to break from deep, so England must ensure they’re on the ball from the off.
5. Selection – There are still concerns at the XV Martin Johnson picked to play Scotland. I’d bring in Alex Corbisiero for Matt Stevens – his first act as a replacement here was to earn England a penalty at the scrum. He’s an out-and-out loosehead and should be starting in the No 1 shirt. I’d also bring in Toby Flood for Mike Tindall, giving England a more creative 10-12 axis as well as one with a good kicking game. Ben Youngs also disappointed against the Scots, he got too het up and was arguing with the officials; I’d bring in Joe Simpson for the France game. He has the pace to really spark England in attack and could bring the best out of what is a dangerous back three but one that hasn’t had too many decent opportunities.