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SIR CLIVE WOODWARD: England are undermined by cheap penalties and a cosy club of undroppable players


I will let others further dissect the two hugely controversial Wales tries from Saturday but what I would say is that winning teams must be prepared for unexpected, random and plain inexplicable happenings and decisions.

The Royal Marines drilled into me many years ago when we spent time with them at Lympstone that winning, in their theatre of war, is all about handling chaos and confusion.

Rarely, if ever, do things go exactly to plan. Being able to adapt is what winning teams do, they call it ‘dislocated expectations’.

England were poised to win against Wales with 20 minutes to go but fell apart instead

England were poised to win against Wales with 20 minutes to go but fell apart instead

The Red Roses gave away three crucial penalties before Cory Hill scored to put game to bed

The Red Roses gave away three crucial penalties before Cory Hill scored to put game to bed

In rugby it means when you cross the line it is 0-0, and when you return 80 minutes latter you must have more points than the opposition. Whatever it takes.

So what I am most interested in from Saturday is that, despite everything, England were poised at 24-24 with 20 minutes to go and to these eyes were in the ascendency. The winning of the game was in their hands.

Most Test matches between the top nations are won in the final 20 minutes. With their strength in depth and quality players this should have been when England put the game to bed. So what went wrong?

DISCIPLINE

A terrible final quarter full of ill-discipline, cheap penalties and loss of focus. England lost that period of play 16-0. That is the story here — nothing else. They made it so easy for Wales.

The Welsh have yet to put together an 80 minute performance but my god they have nailed the last quarter of all three games against Ireland, Scotland and England. It has been brilliant and does not come through luck.

England by comparison were all over the pace. Maro Itoje kept giving penalties away – he conceded five in total and should clearly have been shown a yellow card at some stage – he should have been taken off.

No matter how good a player you might be – and Maro is England’s best player by a distance – you are no good to man or beast coughing up that number of penalties.

Maro Itoje may be England's best player but he's no good coughing up that many penalties

Maro Itoje may be England’s best player but he’s no good coughing up that many penalties

It gives the opposition points and denies you possession. It annoys referees. It undermines everything the team are trying to do.

England have to get real here. Firstly have a professional referee work with the team and every individual player to make sure they fully understand the rules of the game, somebody who can analyse the upcoming referee and how he handles situations.

Secondly you need a figure other than the captain to keep a dialogue going with the referee, Wales use Dan Biggar to good effect. I always wanted this person to be the scrum half as he was always close to the action and hence the referee.

Matt Dawson was brilliant at this, a key reason why he was my first choice scrum half. He would repeat every instruction the ref issued – ‘Get back number four you are offside ‘ or ‘ release six ‘. He would shout it loudly so everyone could hear it, especially the referee!

England suffered a  terrible final quarter full of ill-discipline, cheap penalties and loss of focus

England suffered a  terrible final quarter full of ill-discipline, cheap penalties and loss of focus

This shows England are listening and trying to work with the referee and encourages the referee to talk with him as well as the skipper.

Thirdly if any player was losing it – including the captain on occasions – and giving too many penalties Dawson would sort him out immediately.

Our target was nine penalties absolute maximum and ideally no more than six. One penalty maximum per person and if you gave away two you were really costing the team.

Where is England’s nous and rugby intelligence? Players who are pinged four or five times attract too much attention and you just cannot win at this level with such a crazy penalty count. Ultimately it comes down to coaching

SELECTION/NO MORE COSY CLUB

Selection is the No 1 quality of a international head coach, not just the team but also all the coaches and back-up staff.Jones no doubt is very good technical coach but with the army of coaches within the England camp even this has been watered down and what has become clear is the practice of picking on merit has become blurred

The culture within the England team is wrong and needs to be re-set. England have become a cosy club side which has been evident since the World Cup.

You can be a brotherhood, form strong friendships but the environment can never be cosy. You must justify your selection every time.

You must create the right environment and a winning culture so that everybody understands that being dropped, either from the team or squad altogether, is not an issue or an insult. It is the team progressing.

If you return a refreshed and better player and win your place back that is brilliant, the culture is strengthened. Nobody is undroppable.

Elliot Daly needs to stop defending his teammates and focus on his own performance

Elliot Daly needs to stop defending his teammates and focus on his own performance

Last week not only did we have Billy Vunipola admitting he had been playing rubbish, but we had Elliot Daly defending Owen Farrell and insisting that he must start. Don’t go there Elliot, just focus on your own performance which has dropped off so much.

What happens with cosy clubs is that talent gets held back and important things are left unsaid because nobody wants to rock the boat. I would argue strongly that the likes of Sam Simmonds, Marcus Smith and Alex Dombranddt should have been selected by now on merit.

Within the squad you have Ben Earls, Max Malins, Paolo Ogoduw and Harry Randall before he got injured and they should have all started against Italy on merit.

I can remember picking Dan Lugar and Will Greenwood when neither were playing very well for Quins. But they were still outstanding for England and they continued to reward my loyalty with great performances.

Right now England are picking too many players on reputations and not picking on merit will eventually catch up with every team and every coach.

The Saracens contingent are not the only ones underperforming for England but for whatever reason the Vunipolas, Farrell, Jamie George and Elliot Daly have been nowhere near their best and even Itoje was erratic and ill disciplined in Cardiff.

England coach Eddie Jones is picking too many players on reputations and not on merit

England coach Eddie Jones is picking too many players on reputations and not on merit

The tipping point has been reached. Now is the time to rejuvenate and get the show back on the road. Figuring how to work round this Saracens situation is going to be crucial for the team as a whole.

There was an assumption when this youngish group reached the World Cup final and played exceptionally well against New Zealand in the semi-final that they would move forward en masse to the World Cup in 2023.

Well professional sport doesn’t work like that. England have gone backwards at a rate of knots while others are getting better all the time.

We had the World Cup schedule announced this week and England have got Argentina first up followed by Japan which based on what we are seeing currently should make the whole of English rugby start to wake up from top to bottom.

With the best Argentina players now spread around the world and picking up experience they will kick on and don’t forget they beat New Zealand a few months back

On Friday night I watched a young Argentinian, Fecudno Cordero – brother of Santiago – score one of the best individual tries of the season for Exeter Chiefs at Sale. He’s not even in the Pumas squad, they have brilliant young backs coming out of the woodwork.

TIME TO TOTALLY RESET

The 2021 Six Nations has passed England by but they have a chance to finish on a positive note. 

France will arrive as strong favourites in two weeks but what an opportunity to strike a blow for England rugby again and show the true strength of the Premiership.. Then there’s Ireland away. Again England will now be underdogs.

England have the opportunity to re-set starting with selection based on current form and scrapping the cosy atmosphere that surrounds this team.

They need to get really serious about getting the penalty countdown to single fingers and start to create some ‘dislocated expectations’ of their own. It’s high time for a spring clean.

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