Loose Pass: England, Spain and the Women’s game

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with telling soundbites, Spain’s rise to the top and the continued expansion of the Women’s game…

When intelligence counts for more…

“We are not learning quickly enough and I am not sure why,” said Eddie Jones in the wake of England’s defeat in Paris. “…We are failing to cope with the interpretations of referees. We have to find ways to deal with it and it will take time.”

It’s not at all a wrong summary, even if it was not the most obviously apparent problem in England’s ranks on Saturday night. But as far as general malaises go, it’s hitting the nail on the head.

The current members of the England squad struggle with calm interpretation. It’s been apparent ever since Italy and the Brendan Venter tactic of not putting a player into a ruck so that the Italian defenders could do star jumps by the English scrum-half. It became very apparent again during the match in Paris as the forwards got pinged again and again for the same offences.

Back in that Italy match, Romain Poite uttered the immortal words to a dazed and confused James Haskell: “I’m the referee, not the coach.” Eventually England found a way through, but for professional players at the pinnacle of the game, the solution – or at the absolute least, the technicalities of the problem – should have been quickly summarised and discussed within a couple of minutes. Someone in that XV on the pitch should have been able to take control.

Yet the impression remains that this is becoming England’s big problem. As summarised a couple of weeks ago, England concede more penalties than any other team. Many have noted that England seem to win while not playing well, but how much good play has been undone by persistently high penalty counts during these wins?

Moreover – and this is a key point – while players can only play what is in front of them, shouldn’t the coaches be the ones looking at bigger picture stuff during games as well? You see them armed upstairs in their fancy boxes with an array of equipment and info access offering them influence over all areas of their team, and yet a simple message to help the players play to the referee can’t be delivered?

It seems that neither players nor coaches are taking control, which is why France were so able to for much of Saturday evening. It also raises the very obvious question: if England are not learning fast enough, is that not, at least partly, the fault of those attempting to develop them?

It’s no secret that Jones insists his teams are the most competitive around, which is bound to lead to some collateral damage in the penalty count at first. Nor is it a secret that he likes to create ‘rugby chaos’ on the pitch. But it’s also no secret that Jones often starts his tenures remarkably strong and then suffers a drop-off. He works his players to the bone, takes any option of new and creative input available and stuffs the players full of info and competitive philosophy. But right now, a little more work on the brain and less of the brawn might go a long way.

Because compared to Ireland – the least penalised team in this tournament – England look tired, worn, burned out. Ireland are playing with zest and speed and plenty of physicality, but most of all they play with intelligence and game sense. Unless England prepare very differently this week, Ireland could punish England far harder than either Scotland or France…

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Viva Espana!

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that German rugby is in absolute disarray, Spain’s return to comparative rugby prominence is the culmination of a number of years of good work.

Spain thrashed Germany 84-10 on Sunday, running in 12 tries through a variety of sources. The team has been put together over time, with a number of them already over 30. It’s a generation from which many will achieve their zenith in Japan next year for, after a victory over Romania a week ago, Spain now hold the trump card for automatic World Cup qualification as Europe’s top team after Georgia. Only a shock win by Romania in Georgia next week will stop the Leones.

King Felipe VI was on hand, along with 15,000 other souls to witness Sunday’s win, as was the Webb Ellis Cup and many members of the Spanish team which last qualified for the World Cup, in 1999, where they gained much respect but also the unfortunate title of ‘only team never to score a try in a World Cup’.

This lot could change that quite quickly – have a gander at some of their play here.

Welcome the ladies!

It wasn’t only Spain filling stadia at the weekend either. La Crunch (note: not Le Crunch, geddit?) was played in Grenoble on Friday in front of 17,500 people, a staggering attendance for a ladies’ game.

What a treat they were given too! England, favourites despite being the away team, dominated early, but – and in a manner remarkably similar to the men’s lot 24 hours later, they were repelled by a terrific defensive display and never able to stretch away.

France’s outstanding full-back Jessy Tremouliere clinched the game for the hosts with the final play, setting the seal on an ugly weekend for English rugby – but at least the U20s managed a win.

Which, of course, is not the point. 15,000 in Madrid, 17,500 for the ladies in France. Looks as though the game in general is moving the right direction at the moment.

Loose Pass compiled by former Planet Rugby Editor Danny Stephens

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