England’s Rugby World Cup 2011 campaign ended with the public embarrassment of a newly-wed member of the Royal Family.
It also featured a disturbing revelations about a player’s fondness for a win bonus as opposed to representing his country.
And – perhaps most distressingly of all – it ended with a bunch of smug Frenchmen beaming from ear to ear.
Recriminations, repercussions and resignations have flowed since the team arrived back from New Zealand as beaten quarter-finalists, but attempts to kick-start the Sweet Chariot are having undetermined results. In truth, no-one is expecting Stuart Lancaster to turn the team into world-beaters in the course of his most likely brief tenure, but after lots of struggles and strife, should they be further along the rebuilding path than they currently are? In short, are England actually making progress?
Despite going so close to a Grand Slam that Nike felt it necessary to pre-prepare a video celebrating the non-existent fact, Martin Johnson’s reign will be viewed as England’s low ebb since the 15-man game went professional. In fairness to Jonno, the disappointment of the World Cup was all the more acute because he looked to be nudging the English team in the right direction in the build-up to it.
Now clearly judging the merits of performances is a hugely subjective issue, but tying performance to the pre-match handicap is one way of at least approaching the subject. The handicap is essentially the expectation of how a particular team are going to perform in a specific match and measuring the expectancy against the actual result should at least hint at under/over performance. The ability to cover a handicap on a regular basis would undoubtedly been seen as a good thing (particularly if you backed it) and provides a decent yardstick of how a team have performed in relation to expectations. Typically a team should be coming out on the right side of the handicap about half of the time. Falling short of that figure over a long period of time isn’t a good sign.
Using this admittedly dubious metric, England don’t seem to be making much progress. If anything, the evidence suggests things are going backwards. In 2009, when perhaps the standards expected of the team weren’t at their highest, England regularly beat the handicap. In that year, they played 10 times, winning five times and losing five times. However, in the same period, they managed to cover the handicap seven times and fell only one point short of beating New Zealand on the handicap in the last of the Autumn internationals. It wasn’t the most successful spell in the history of English rugby, but it suggests that the team was performing to its potential, even if that potential was as impressive as a Jedward vocal.
2010 was again hardly likely to be a vintage year for English rugby, but certainly it looks like the quality of performances dropped off again with England covering the handicap in five of their 11 games. 2011 was more encouraging purely in terms of results, but again there were suggestions of not living up to potential as they only covered five handicaps out of a possible 13.
So where does that leave us now? Well, England are clearly a bit crap, but we already knew that. The question is ‘how crap are the performances in relation to what we should expect of them?’. The evidence of this year’s Six Nations Championship is as uncertain as the rules regarding the scrum. England have two wins and one defeat to their name and covered just one handicap. The wins against Scotland and Italy were gutsy, but owed a great deal to their opponents’ ineptitude. Ironically, the performances against Wales was England’s best, yet it yielded nothing other than a lot of Welsh fans singing no doubt tunefully in the pubs of London.
The game in Paris is another chance to assess the pace of the English renaissance. A win is unlikely, but not impossible as Les Bleus’ shaky performance against Ireland showed.
In This Weekend’s Other Matches
That game in France was enough to give Ireland hope of a bright future, but the post-match medical reports were less encouraging. Paul O’Connell will be a huge loss, especially against a Scotland team so adept at winning their own and stealing other people’s lineouts. Where Ireland do hold the upper hand is in the backs and if they aren’t overwhelmed by the Scottish pack, they should be the difference. A home win is likely, but covering a nine point handicap is far from a given.
Wales will beat Italy and the only question is if they’ll do it by beating the 20-point handicap. Italy ran out of steam against Ireland and it’s usually at this point in the Championship when their lack of squad depth begins to show. The Welsh are likely to run the Azzurri ragged from the off and it will take its toll in the second half. A tight opening period followed by a more decisive second period would be no surprise and Wales might well cut loose before the end.