England's Season - A Headmaster's Report

If I were a headmaster (some thought really!) my report would be predominantly positive, with underlying concerns about being too defensive and encouragement to take the risk and blood some attacking talent. But a pat on the back for the captain and maybe even a gold star.

Obviously when looking back, the last game looms large in the memory - especially when it was as traumatic as the Welsh victory was from an English point of view. But it is important to look right back and to do it without being tainted by the last game alone.

You can read all sorts of technical reviews elsewhere, the papers and websites are full of them and some are actually quite astute. So yes, England missed a ball carrying eight in the last two games, the lack of pace in the back three was exposed, as was the lack of creativity in the midfield. All those points are valid and important, but I want to look at it from the angle of the team, the characters, the experience, as I think this will be even more vital in the long term.

The first thing to say is that I think captain Chris Robshaw has been outstanding, his performances have been consistently high and he even managed to sustain that in the turmoil of Cardiff. He has led by example on the field quite superbly. What I suspect is that he might now need to develop his confidence in leading off the field.

As far as I think England have come in developing a new culture, which coach Stuart Lancaster deserves huge praise for, I still sense areas that need improvement and attention. A number of England players still have over-inflated views of their ability and their worth. Some still convince themselves that they prepare as thoroughly as the best in the world, and yet in the area of personal preparation, and I am talking mainly mental here, I think many are way behind the best.

A very famous ex-All Black captain told me that within the current team there is a real drive to be a 'student of the game'. To analyse the games being played, to understand the requirements of your position as much as you can and the others around you. To study rugby! To study opposition players and teams, so that you can see how they operate and why. Sadly I think that might sound tedious to a number of current players, as the All Blacks do this in their own time...

I am sure I sound like an old has-been, or even an old never-was, but I do feel that in the professional world, players abdicate the responsibility for mental preparation to the coaching team far too readily. England got it right in Dublin and I was really impressed with their focus when they went down to fourteen men, in fact they won the game in that period - great effort. But a huge part of the Six Nations is understanding that you have to get the mental preparation and mind set right for each game. Even more so when you are English.

To enjoy a win such as the one in Dublin is compulsory (otherwise why the hell are you doing it?) but wiping your mind clean and being able to focus solely on the next team with exactly the same intensity and respect again is bloody hard. Really bloody hard not to soften slightly, not to take short cuts in anyway and not to convince yourself that due to your win, confidence will carry you through. It does not, it never will, because each team presents such a unique challenge, and each team wants to beat you so much, so so much.

And this is where I think there are probably times when Robshaw needs to ground players, to push them harder in training. Not physically but from the mental point of view, the precision, the intensity, the visualisation. There were many times I had to do this, intimidating as it was with the likes of Brian Moore, Dean Richards, Peter Winterbottom, Wade Dooley and Mike Teague, but it had to be done. We would coast in training, go through the motions and balls were dropped.

It might not sound important but for me a dropped ball in training is a dropped ball in the game and if you allow it in training, you will replicate that in a game. And the same for any lack of precision in training - all of it manifests itself in a game, especially when you are under pressure. There has to be a purpose to every training session, there has to be an edge to every session, a goal, a reason, and a lot of the time there should be an underlying fear. The fear that if we don't get this right, if we are not sharp enough, we lose and we have to walk off a pitch with that sickening feeling in your stomach and the knowledge that you are going to have to live with this for a very very long time.

We all like to operate in a comfort zone, none of us relish the idea of constantly pushing the envelope, but that is what is needed to win and I think Robshaw and his leadership team need to bollock players who are coasting, needle the players, visualise worst case scenarios, and do whatever will evoke the desired reaction from those particular players.

It does not make you popular - quite the opposite - but it needs to be don. It is one of the responsibilities of leadership that you want to avoid. But England need to have a focus and intensity on the training pitch and when preparing in the team room that gives them an edge over their opposition.

And the other realisation for me, and this is not a cop out, is that until you have walked out into Cardiff and experienced that wall of emotion, no one can describe it to you. Ten of the England boys had not played there, and none had been in the final game of the Championship going for a Grand Slam. They received a very painful injection of experience and, let's be honest, none of us like injections, none of us ask for them, certainly not painful ones, but they often do us the world of good.

Even the great World Cup winning side had to receive a few painful injections along the way... So a painful dose of experience, that needs to be banked and then evoked in a year's time, alongside a realisation that we need to include players who offer a real threat in attack. I know defence is vital, but so is scoring points and having more than one way to do that.

But my overriding feeling is that England are moving in the right direction, and that is not something I have felt as an England fan for far too long. The likes of Joe Launchbury, Tom Youngs, Tom Wood, and Billy Twelvetrees have all developed well and I believe there are some new faces that will add some edge to England's attack next season.

If I were a headmaster (some thought really!) my report would be predominantly positive, with underlying concerns about being too defensive and encouragement to take the risk and blood some attacking talent. But a pat on the back for the captain and maybe even a gold star.

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