I am trying hard not to indulge in a knee jerk reaction to England's loss to Australia on Saturday, as many have I see...
Yes it was hugely disappointing, for a variety of reasons, hopes were high after their French escapade, basic skills were alarmingly low, creativity was lacking, as was a general sense of and use of space.
Pretty damning you might say, and certainly not something I could defend easily, but I do think we have to bear in mind a couple of points. Firstly what style of rugby and coaching are these players experiencing week in, week out at club level? It is difficult enough to step up to Test rugby without the added issue of trying to play a very foreign style of rugby. And to win at test level you do need good skills, good spacial awareness as a team in order to translate pressure and territory into points, an area that England have been struggling in for quite a few years.
Add to this the change of culture that Lancaster and his coaching team are trying to deliver and the task is far harder than people might appreciate.
One conversation that I had on Saturday encapsulates so much of Lancaster's problem;
I was talking with a current player who was telling me the potential that he believes Tuilagi has as a centre. He believes he has the necessary ball skills and vision...the problem he believes is that he is not getting the right coaching at club level.
Now I am not sure how you read that, and lets leave out the debate about whether people believe he has the skills or not. What I found most alarming is this culture that he is waiting to be coached, developed, and helped. Call me old fashioned (as well as plenty of other things) but why oh why is he not kicking down doors in his own quest to develop his skills?
If England are to progress up the International ladder, then this group of players are going to have to understand that a huge part of that process is their ability and desire to take on responsibility. The days of sitting waiting to be told what to eat, what to wear, what to do at training, when to sleep etc etc only get you so far. Once you cross the line, you are on your own for 40 minutes, and in that time you need to think, make decisions, be responsible.
So yes, the basic skills were poor on Saturday, the basic ability to catch and pass under pressure, draw defenders, change angles of attack - yes I agree with all those assessments. What I am saying is that before we deal with all of that, the underlying frame of mind of these players has to change. They need to become leaders, they need to question, to get involved, to be a part of pushing the envelope. They need to work with the coaches, not sit and just listen to the coaches. Then, and only then, can this group of players start climbing up the International ladder.
Robshaw needs help from his fellow players as well as his coaching team. I have had many compare his inexperience at Test captaincy to my start as captain. Oh yes I was inexperienced, naïve and bloody lucky (only two of those apply to Robshaw!!) BUT, I had some very experienced players in the squad. I just needed to get them to tell me what we needed to change and Geoff Cooke gave them the time and stability to change it. Robshaw does not have that luxury of experienced players to fall back on, he needs a core of players to stand up as leaders, to work with the coaches to instil in every player the drive and desire to improve themselves and the team. No waiting to be told, no waiting for the coaches to come up with all the solutions, time to start thinking and actively working on personal skill improvements and team dynamics.
So let's be realistic when assessing England, because those rugby fans with half a brain (and we know which positions we are talking about!!) will realise that this is going to take time. We need to dig in and stick with it and accept that we do not have a cupboard full of world class players to throw into this team as replacements. But through perseverance with the right players, characters, we might well see World Class players developing before our very eyes in the coming 18 months...
And one last thing, which I can still not answer myself, is what the hell was that shirt?? It might seem trivial to some people, and I am sure that I come across as some antiquated turtle when I say that England play in white. We play in white unless we clash with the opposition. We have played in white countless times against Australia. I am afraid that I have to say Twickenham got that wrong. I have read so much lately about the importance of the shirt and what it symbolises, and have been delighted to hear it, and you only had to be at the Stadium to hear and feel the reaction to 'that' shirt to realise it was not a popular move.
This weekend let's play in white. And this weekend let's win.