It’s Just Like Watching Saints
Watching England toil away in this 29-10 victory over Lebanon would have felt uncomfortably familiar to us Saints fans. And not in a good way. In the way that your seventh consecutive week of root canal treatment at Disturbed Desmond’s Dentist felt. It really was a masterclass in tedium from Wayne Bennett’s side whose plan for world domination appears to be nothing more than to plough it up the middle with the big lads before ‘applying pressure’ with an imagination-sapping, joy-sucking Luke Gale kick.
Now where have we seen this before? Isn’t this exactly the kind of approach taken by Keiron Cunningham during the violent death throes of his Langtree Park tenure? Well, all of it really, but particularly towards the end when all notions of beating the opposition with speed and guile were unashamedly absent and instead replaced by a stultifying determination to avoid mistakes. Which they palpably failed to do on a weekly basis. For their part England managed to keep their error count in this one down to 11, but that is hardly a figure to strike hearts into the top nations at the World Cup and hardly low enough to justify the banal approach.
Right down to the red and white shirts on their backs England looked every inch a striking, yet self-defeating replica of the Saints team that we have half-watched with buried heads over the last couple of years. Do we really have to put up with more of the same at international level despite the greater depth of talent that the England side possesses?
McGillvary Verdict Is Correct – And A Relief
Through the sleepiness one bright spark for England during this World Cup so far has been Jermaine McGillvary. The Huddersfield Giants winger has performed admirably so far, not only in tries in both matches. McGillvary has gained over 350 metres at an average of 176 metres per game. To put that into some context Chris Heighinton has gained a whopping 139 at an average of less than 70 per game. Ok, so the Newcastle Knights man doesn’t get the minutes in the pack that McGillvary enjoys out on the wing but he is one of a number of English players who could have few complaints if they were officially reported missing by the Australian police.
McGillvary’s form being one of the few pluses, there were anxious moments this week when he faced a charge of biting following a complaint from Lebanon’s former Aussie Test hooker turned scrum-half Robbie Farah. The video footage was fairly inconclusive, showing that there was certainly a moment when Farah’s arm came into contact with the inside of McGillvary’s mouth. However, there was no clear evidence that McGillvary motioned to actually bite Farah, or that he had even so much has shown his teeth. It took precisely three minutes according to some sources for the disciplinary panel to find McGillvary not guilty, much to the relief of everyone. A heavy ban would have accompanied any guilty verdict. Biting is frowned upon. Ask Luis Suarez, although it can also get you a lucrative move to a Spanish super-club. McGillvary’s absence would not perhaps have proved costly against what looks a shambolic French outfit in England’s next match, but the prospect of taking on anyone from south of the equator would have been made that bit more difficult without the hard-working, free-scoring Giants man. Not least because Bennett, in his unchallengeable wisdom, has selected only McGillvary and Ryan Hall as specialist wingers. We may have got our wish to see more of Mark Percival throughout the rest of the tournament, but it would have been as a makeshift winger. This week Bennett has chosen to rest Hall and replace him with Stefan Ratchford, which says more about the depth of this squad in the wing department than any combination of words I can offer you.
Why Rest Roby?
After losing to Australia in their opener England really needed a morale-boosting performance against the Lebanese. Not so much a win, that was always as predictable as a Warrington meltdown, but a performance to really raise our spirits and have us all believing that we do have what it takes to challenge the Aussies and Kiwis in particular. So it was with some dismay that we learned that James Roby would not be involved against Brad Fittler’s side.
Roby has almost been the forgotten man of the England set-up over the last couple of years but was outstanding in the loss to Australia. He gave England go-forward, speed at the ruck and a level of distribution from dummy half to finally match or even better anything that the Australians have in their arsenal. Yet Bennett, as cautious as a trainee journalist sent to get more than three words out of the Brisbane and England coach might be, went for what he can be bothered to watch more often in the shape of Josh Hodgson. That Hodgson is preferred to Roby seems to serve as evidence that there is an assumption that everything based in the NRL must be better than anything based in the UK. You would think an experienced coach, so storied and so decorated as Bennett would know better.
It isn’t that Hodgson is a bad player. His defenders will point out that he must have something about him if he can make it in the NRL with the Canberra Raiders. And it is hard to argue with that. But here he appeared ponderous, as if he would rather be anywhere else. He took the Tommy Lee approach to dummy half play, taking a minimum of two steps before laboriously offloading to a receiver for whom it was all too often already too late to make an impact.
About Those Interviews….
While we are getting at Bennett, and why not since it is such a refreshing departure from complaining in this column about LMS, let’s talk about those classic post-match musings. Asked what he thought about his side’s performance he offered simply;
“Mixed. I was pleased with the win.”
Notwithstanding this highly generous review, the amount of awkward silence which followed it was cringe-inducing. When further probed he could muster only;
“In the second half defence was pretty good, but pretty ordinary with the football.” Pretty ordinary in the way that a shark is pretty ordinary at the Argentine Tango. England’s second half was beyond the catch-all Australianism of ‘ordinary’ and into a whole new realm of not-good-enough. All they had to show for their efforts in the entire 40 minutes in attack was Tom Burgess’ unlikely 50-yard dash and a rather embarrassing and unnecessary Gareth Widdop drop-goal at the very last. No wonder Bennett didn’t want to talk about it, perhaps.
But the point is that he should. It is part of his job and given the fare being served up by his side at the moment he needs to inject a bit of personality into his role before the tide of opinion turns against him completely. That is if he has any designs on keeping the job beyond the end of the World Cup, which may not be the case. Yet what he surely won’t want when he eventually departs from the employ of the RFL is to be remembered as a boring coach who played boring rugby with boring players before boring everyone to death post-match.
There are those who say that it’s just him, that’s just Bennett. That blaming him for his oratorical inadequacy is like blaming a pigeon for its inability to fashion you a good spag bol. But if we want the profile of the England team and in turn the international game to be raised then Bennett needs to up his chit-chat game or else move on to ordinary pastures new.
A New World Order Or A Slightly Rubbish England?
We have already established that a defeat to the French this weekend is about as likely as a funny episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys but what of England’s prospects in the tournament? Coming into the event it was thought that the traditional big three of Australia, England and New Zealand were all but guaranteed semi-final places, with the final berth left to be fought over between Fiji, Tonga and perhaps Samoa with maybe an outside chance of another European nation such as Ireland, Scotland or even France springing a surprise.
But are England, especially on this sort of form, a lock-in for the semi-finals. They are on a collision course with what looks like a very handy Papua New Guinea side in the quarter-finals and it is not beyond the realms that the Kumuls could cause England more than a few problems. Had the draw been even less kind and England been matched up with either Tonga or Fiji in the last eight, both of whom have looked extremely impressive in their opening two games, could Wayne Bennett’s side have had even greater difficulty meeting what was the minimum expectation before a ball was kicked?
Of course you could look at England’s vulnerability more than one way. You could worry for the future of the English national team with the quality of Super League deteriorating by the year and dated tactics holding back what talent we do have. Or you could put a positive spin on it and say that, actually, despite Wales coach John Kear’s recent assertion that the World Cup is ‘third rate’, the greater degree of difficulty is down to the improvement made by some of the southern hemisphere sides. Tonga have benefitted from a couple of defections from Australia and New Zealand but those two bullies can hardly complain about that, while Fiji and PNG have shown that they have a formidable combination of pace, power and skill that will keep them competitive.
Does rugby league have a new world order or are England just a bit rubbish?