Planet Rugby

Expert Witness: November Tests

05th November 2013 13:42

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Expert witness winterbottom 1 Nov 2013

Flanker's perspective: Peter Winterbottom

Expert Witness returns to Planet Rugby with former England and Lions flank Peter Winterbottom the newest addition to our panel.

With the result of New Zealand's warm-up in Tokyo never in any doubt, we focus on England's opener against Australia at Twickenham.

Slow off the mark, rusty out of the blocks, Stuart Lancaster's troops nevertheless increased their tempo in the second-half to overcome a committed Wallaby display.

Expert Witness welcomes one of England's most-capped flankers of all time, Winterbottom, to rake over the coals of the Bonfire weekend events.

"I think the most telling observation I could make was the lack of shape of both sides," observed the former England openside.

"It was a very narrow game of rugby, with a high error count.

"England's tactics seemed very basic, and the paucity of width on their game was evident from the first minute. Even from second phase I don't think either winger got a direct pass, which is very disappointing.

"I have no issue with basic rugby; indeed the All Blacks are masters of that style of game. But if you play that way, execution and shape have to be spot on, and details such as re-starts and kick chases have to be delivered with a high degree of accuracy.

"At one point in the game, England took an openside drop-out from their 22, only to have Cole, Mako Vunipola and Lawes chasing that restart. A classic case of poor strategic thinking and poor tactical delivery.

"Looking at Australia, Wallaby sides are always inventive and are one of those teams that's always looking to make the ball do the work through inventive handling," explained Winterbottom.

"It was therefore quite puzzling to see the Aussies kick to our back three on so many occasions.

"When a full-back gets a man-of-the-match award, yet doesn't score a try, then you question the amount of deep kicking that took place by the opposition.

"I don't believe that Brown made one run from an openfield pass; every run was a counter attack out of defence, which tells you Australia played a very aerial game."

Examining the match stats, Australia kicked to open field on 16 occasions, eight more than in the third Test v the British and Irish Lions. Winterbottom explains that he was very surprised to see the positional selections of some of the Australian backs.

"Picking their best midfielder, Adam Ashley-Cooper, on the right wing, tells you there's going to be some kick chasing. However, looking at the wider agenda, it made little sense to have a man of his penetrative brilliance in midfield out on the wing, although I can see how playing Israel Falau in the middle of the back three can give him more freedom.

"However, once they'd selected him there, I was surprised how they failed to get him onto the phase ball at pace, and into a situation where he could use his devastating outside break."

And what of England? They started spluttering and misfiring like an old car fired up for the first time after winter. As the engines warmed up, so did the performance, led by another excellent showing from the England front-row.

Not far behind were the back-row; a distant second in the corresponding fixture last season, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and new boy Billy Vunipola woke up from the initial exchanges to provide a platform of huge power at ruck and maul.

Winterbottom believes that England's kick chasing, poor in the first-half, improved, led by the commitment of fellow flankers, Robshaw and Wood.

"Although I still believe that that England back-row lacks balance and that we don't have a real flyer at seven, Robshaw's kick chasing, Wood's graft and industry, and Billy Vunipola's huge power blended well," commented our expert.

"Michael Hooper, a thorn in England's side before, was driven back the moment he laid his hands on loose ball. England, led by the behemoth Vunipola brothers, used their superior bulk to smash the Australian loose defence way back over the gain line.

"The lighter weight Aussie loose forwards were powered off the park. This is fine against a side noted more for skill and handling than power, but I'll be interested to see how more powerful sides like South Africa, France and New Zealand, cope with the same strategy," said Winterbottom.

"On the credit side, the front-row went well. Dan Cole controlled the scrum height all day, and, to be cruel, Slipper lived up to his name and slipped off his bind many times due to Cole's pressure. It was also good to see the hooker being forced to hook. I believe the new laws will aid good technical scrummagers, especially those that like to set to scrum height. Cole is a master in this area and the Wallaby scrum was pretty much demolished in terms of effectiveness.

"A lot of people have criticised Will Genia and said he was quiet; any scrum-half is going to struggle against so much back-foot ball and he rarely had the chance to use the ball with his side going forward with momentum.

"This also means that Quade Cooper, a man that craves front-foot gainline ball, creeps deeper and deeper into the pocket, and, being such an intuitive player, probably back into his mental shell too, despite the boost MacKenzie has given him in naming his as vice captain.

"This absolutely emphasises the importance of dominating the area a yard behind the tackle line, something England did better than Australia."

In terms of the midfield, England seemed industrious rather than creative. A new combination produced in the public schools of Leicestershire and the Rugby League hotbed of Wigan failed to impress, with Billy Twelvetrees missing a number of crucial tackles.

"Billy was unlucky, but he stepped up out of the defensive line too many times. Once he created a dog leg, the Australians will exploit this. He needs to hold back, communicate and place trust in the two guys either side of him," said Winterbottom.

"Joel Tomkins looks solid if unspectacular. I believe he played both lock and centre in the 13 man code. There is a reason he started at lock, and on this showing, one wonders if he has the pace and guile that England need at outside centre.

"Many people are quick to criticize Brad Barritt, but the defensive certainty and organisation he brings to the midfield is invaluable. He was missed greatly."

Looking forward to Argentina and New Zealand, it appears England's second-half showing will provide an impetus to work off. But Winterbottom believes that there is a lot of work still to take place:

"I think we lost four line-outs out of seven. Now a line-out is a sum of many things; the throw, the lift, the guard, the catch. But simple things went wrong, and you have to question the overall leadership of our line-out rather than the individual components. We overthrew a longer ball, we were not straight, we threw short, making the catcher stoop down to catch off the lift. All in all, not great, until Dylan Hartley came on, although I'd emphasise that Tom Youngs was not aided by his colleagues.

"And on the subject of impact, Ben Youngs' introduction changed the pace of England's attack considerably. Lee Dickson is used to an armchair ride at Saints, but Ben showed the sniping pace he's known for and added a lot in the last 20 minutes.

"However, the biggest concern I have is that lack of fluidity or attacking intent in midfield. Our game is so narrow it's almost painful to watch. It's many Tests since I've been wowed by a piece of visionary play from an England centre, and still there appears to be a lack of pattern of attack and a lack of consistency of where to attack from.

"Changing personnel does not help, but it's the thinking that concerns me, and I really don't see enough creativity coming from that midfield trio. Certainly not enough to keep Kieran Reed and co. up all night worrying about containment!"

Winterbottom's last word goes on Australia. A side that lost narrowly to an exceptional British and Irish Lions team in June and July, they seem to have stagnated. Winterbottom believes selection could be an issue:

"It's strange to see so much controversy in Australian sport. They have a clean image and many dedicated athletes. Dealing with the Beales and O'Connors of this world is not helping the Wallaby cause. Factor in that McKenzie selects players that are proven performers in one position, and then asks them to do another job completely, and you see that Australia are disjointed and lacking shape.

"I think both sides have some way to go if they're going to be able the challenge the best come September 2015."

Peter Winterbottom was speaking to James While.

A world-class flanker, Peter Winterbottom won 58 caps for England and seven for the British and Irish Lions. An iconic figure in the number seven shirt, his intelligent support play and hard tacking were features of his game. Peter now runs the Rugby Marketing Communications Agency Full Contact

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