Loose Pass

Date published: November 27 2012

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with decisions, South Africa's staying power, literature and Scotland's woes…

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with decisions, South Africa's staying power, literature and Scotland's woes…

It's tough at the top. If you really are in any doubt about that, ask Chris Robshaw. Questioned to the edge of his mental toughness last week over his decision to go for tries rather than points against Australia, he opted for points over tries against South Africa this week. Opposite decision, same result: narrow loss and an instant bout of highly public and ill-informed finger-pointing.

Robshaw is not an inexperienced captain. He is in his third season at the helm of Harlequins and has led them to an English title. He knows what's what and where the big decisions are made and he's never shied away from standing up to be counted.

So were the decisions really that wrong?

England could have kicked for the corner and looked for a try, but the line-out was not going well and South Africa were hardly letting people through gaps. England's best opportunity all game came from an intercept (an opportunity more thoroughly butchered than an haute cuisine Springbok shank by the way). To have gone for a try and not got it – a reasonable expectation given the flow of the game – would have left England four points adrift with only two minutes left and with no chance of winning. At least taking the three gave them that sniff.

Against Australia on the other hand, England had breached the line several times. Thomas Waldrom had knocked on over the line. Ben Youngs was causing problems. There was reason to suspect a try would come, even if that was paying scant regard to just how well Michael Hooper was ruining things at breakdown time. But going for a try was a realistic target – even if the question of 'how' to go for that try was poorly answered.

Those questions of 'how' are the ones which ought to be dominating the English press right now. How can England be better able next time to finish off sitters such as Manu Tuilagi's intercept. How can the team best score tries? How can they ensure more fluidity to a strong-arm but terribly arrhythmic attack. That's just the opening three.

Robshaw, and most other people in the England camp, should be able to identify the Whys from this November pretty fast. The Hows will take a lot more time…

Moving swiftly on to England's opposition for a moment, it's a strange Test series when there's little to say about the Boks but this November has yielded merely the same set of questions that existed before.

You can criticise Heyneke Meyer for many things. Pat Lambie got his chance, but especially against England got a chance desperately sullied by his having to watch Ruan Pienaar hoof away much of Lambie's possible possession.

Against Scotland and Ireland there was still a glaring lack of imagination, even more apparent against England where only a monstrous stroke of good fortune turned the game. The knives are being sharpened in some quarters. After all, the All Blacks managed more tries and points in one game against Scotland than the Boks have managed in the whole tour.

But in other quarters the knives have been sheathed. Whatever else you say about Meyer and his conservative style, he wins. He returns home with three from three, a record only the All Blacks will be able to match. However much his team lacks in sharpness and guile, the willingness to obliterate the opponent in the name of the Springbok is still there, with Meyer very much ensuring that spirit lives on.

Yes, the Boks need to develop. Meyer himself is known to be deeply frustrated with the ignorance of skill development and dictatorial adherence to structure in SA at schoolboy level, which propagates a top level of abrasive but frequently clumsy behemoths. There needs to be a change in SA to ensure long-term success. But Meyer is on the brink of proving his own critics wrong – it will probably only take one dazzling display to complete that process. Then he might be able to relax and begin the real work of taking the Boks forward.

Back to decisions and captaincy: landing with a thud (and suspiciously from the side) on our desks this week was a copy of Richie McCaw's autobiography.

Clearly the best on-field marshal of his generation, Robshaw and other aspirants might do well to read and learn from dispatches.

More than anything, the book – a cracking read – dwells remarkably long on that long night in Cardiff, 22 per cent of the final page count is about, or immediately related to, that night; a huge percentage when you consider all McCaw has gone to.

Most of us know that New Zealand easily had enough territory and possession to have conjured up a drop goal shot, regardless of the reluctance of Wayne Barnes to give a penalty or the inability of the All Blacks to somehow force the pill over the line.

But McCaw raises that all-important point: the team just didn't know how. They'd never rehearsed it. A passage is described in intimate detail where McCaw feels ill-empowered to call for the drop goal because he couldn't work out how it would work as it had never been run in training.

Shortly after, he recalls a moment where the team was in the right position to go for goal, but when he looked back in the pocket, the sole occupant was Tony Woodcock. Even McCaw might have been hard-pressed to recall that Matt Dunning had managed it once from a similar distance…

Off goes Andy Robinson once more, with the ghost of failure raising claws and roaring at his retreating back.

Well, time to exorcise that one. Robinson's time at England's helm was not great, but for Scotland he has been a good servant. He has seen the game in Scotland increasingly stripped away from him, seen many players heading off to contracts elsewhere, faced unique challenges of management and had to deal with the clash between a history of achievement in the amateur era and the grim reality that professional rugby in Scotland is a constant struggle, playing a deep and squeaky second fiddle to soccer on a permanent basis and facing unique challenges of talent discovery within an amateur development structure.

Yet several new players have emerged under his guidance and shown promise – not least in the June Tests. Scotland were whipping boys when he took over, these days they are closer to the big teams, but still just unable to find the way of winning the tight games.

He's taken the responsibility this time, and off he goes. But the next candidate needs to look at what Robinson has done and realise he was on the right track. He then should look extremely hard and identify some assistants who are all about polishing the skill within the spirit. The failure to do that was Robinson's ultimate demise, but he should leave Scotland with his head held high.

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson