Webb Ellis whitewash

2007-10-17 12:44

Chris Hewitt

After their 36-0 capitulation to the Boks in the pool stages, England's progression to the final has been the stuff of fable. It's also been a bloody farce.

This is a side ranked seventh in the world heading into the tournament, and not looking a place better for much of the last four years.

This is a side who within 12 months have lost their last four Tests to the men in green and gold, at home, away and on neutral ground.

This is a side coached by man whose rugby philosophy is as up-to-date, relevant and inspiring as the Penny Farthing.

And this is a side who depend more on one man than the giraffes did on Noah.

And yet, somehow, this is a team in their second consecutive Rugby World Cup final.

"When England were thrashed 36-0 by South Africa in Paris they were a team without a game," proclaims The Sun, the most widely read British daily. "When they return to the Stade de France they do so as a team who have become the game."

The same piece states further that "... this England team are prepared to rip the heart from your body and terrify your soul."

Such hyper-ventilation at the thought of the Mud Island winning anything again would be funny if the reality weren't so damn scary: The Poms are actually 80 minutes from winning the thing. Again.

Such a scare, fueled by the kind of sensationalistic, beer-sizzled furor as exhibited in the article quoted above has prompted virtually the entire rugby planet to get behind the Boks.

A poll on leading Kiwi site RugbyHeaven.co.nz, for example, has two thirds of respondents preferring a Bok triumph.

Sideshows aside, the truth is, regardless of mind-games, media rants and BMT, England are simply not good enough to beat the Boks.

The only hope they have is, like with France's fear of failure and Australia's disregard for the basics of forward play, we conspire to beat ourselves.

A lot has been made of the direction provided by halfback pairing Andy Gomarsall and Jonny Wilkinson. Both didn't start the 36-0 match, it is argued, and they have made England a new side.

Utter rubbish.

The same two individuals started in June this year in the two Tests in Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Granted, both times they scored more points than in Paris four weeks back, but somehow the overall scores of 58-10 and 55-22 to the Boks took the gloss off such attacking potency.

In terms of tactics, the Poms have little in their arsenal that will scare White.

Media reports suggest they'll target "Peacock Percy", as he has been dubbed in the Pom press, but whether they have the personnel to match the plan remains to be seen.

Sure, Wilkinson can launch the biggest aerial bombardment on French soil since World War II, but who are the chasers?

In Mike Catt and Mathew Tait (he may be forced to shift to the wing to cover for the injured Josh Lewsey), England have a small midfield pairing, with neither renowned for their aerial ability. Ditto Jason Robinson, whilst the expected forward pack - with the exception of Lewis Moody - do not possess the pace to get under the kicks and compete regularly.

Kicking to touch ain't wise either, as the Boks' primary strength - the lineout - has yet to falter at the tournament.

So what else?

If South Africa's demolition of Argentina has underlined anything, it is the simple fact that you cannot concede turnover ball to White's side. Throw in the ever-present risk of intercepts and you can chuck out expansive rugby as a tactic.

It leaves England with a bash-it-up bonanza. Low risk rugby, with the express instruction not to turn the ball over.

It's the equivalent of rocking up at Old Trafford as Birmingham City and sticking 11 men behind the ball in an effort to sneak a point and maybe even a breakaway goal against Manchester United. Yer chances are slim, lad.

Argentina tried the same tactic, but once the Boks got ahead early, they were forced to play catch-up rugby and hence the mistakes multiplied.

England will try frustrate the Boks by shutting them out early. They'll try and keep the score low and hope the occasion beats the Boks. It's guerrilla warfare, desperate stuff, but their only option.

God save the Queen? Let's all be thankful that on Saturday in Paris, He's the only one who can.

  • Chris is Chief Rugby Writer at Sports Illustrated and a former SAB Rookie Sports Journalist of the Year.

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