Back to basics

The extent of England’s humiliating defeats against South Africa and New Zealand surprised former Bok coach Jake White.

jakeI never thought England would beat either side, but I did think it was going to be a lot closer, because Twickenham as a home venue traditionally is worth 15 points to England.

The Tri-Nations teams dominated the November internationals and the two teams with the greatest player depth – South Africa and New Zealand – were the most convincing.

New Zealand, impressive at times, never put together 80 minutes in one match and still won all four Tests easily. Their defence was organised, they scrambled well on the odd occasion that their line was broken and not one of the home unions looked like scoring a try against them. To not concede a try in four successive internationals is an achievement.

South Africa conceded one try against Scotland, but their defensive effort against England was outstanding, and physically they were in control of the Test. I have always advocated the best defence in the game will always beat the best attack. In saying this, I have been accused of not being adventurous enough in my approach to Test rugby, but I reject any criticism that emphasising the necessity of a quality defence comes at the expense of any attack.

In Test rugby you play to your strengths and with a team like South Africa, defence is a form of attack. England, when they were at their best under Sir Clive Woodward, played similar rugby to the Boks’ 2007 World Cup side. They were settled in their selections, they had a pack with no weaknesses, an exceptional leader (and lineout player) in Martin Johnson and a flyhalf who controlled where the game was played. You did not score easily against them and they refused to give any team soft points through playing in their own half. They would only open up once the scoreboard gave them enough of a cushion. I’ve never understood how people could call this dour or dull rugby. I think it is intelligent and logical.

We played a certain way in the World Cup final because all that mattered was winning it, and we knew that a high-risk approach would favour England because it would allow them to potentially feed off our mistakes. It did not mean we couldn’t attack, or didn’t attack, and in some games we played brilliant attacking rugby in getting beyond 50 and 60 points.

England will always have good forwards and they need to build a team around that. They must also realise that a halfback pairing that understands percentages tortures the opposition, and sporadic bursts of flamboyance win you nothing if there is no consistency to how and where you want to play the game.

England’s players, like South Africa’s, prefer structure and don’t easily play off the cuff. In order for England to advance they need to get back to structure, improve their fitness and settle on team selections.

I’d also always play a fit Jonny Wilkinson and I don’t understand the fascination with Danny Cipriani, because he is not in the class of Wilkinson. Cipriani has played a handful of games at international level and has been poor in the most basic aspects, yet he is being compared to Dan Carter, Matt Giteau and Wilkinson. It baffles me that a player who has done so little has had so much written about him.

While on the subject of flyhalves, I was very pleased with the way Ruan Pienaar played in the No 10 jersey and it gives the Bok selectors options for the British & Irish Lions series. I wouldn’t discard Butch James, plus he has the added advantage of playing with and against the best British and Irish players every weekend.

There is no doubt that South Africa will have gained a psychological edge in winning all three autumn internationals in preparing for the Lions, but it is also no guarantee of success.

South Africa, when compared to each one of the four home unions, have far greater playing depth, but when you put four countries together there is enough depth to pick 15 players capable of making it one hell of a series and the highlight of the 2009 season.

– White writes a regular column for SA Rugby magazine