Northern lights seem rather dim

A week into the Rugby World Cup and, if you believe the headlines in New Zealand and South Africa, the Webb Ellis Trophy is already heading back to the southern hemisphere.

After defeat for France in Paris on the opening day and less than impressive wins against the minnows for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the northern hemisphere is merely making up the numbers.

Under the headline, ”Standard set for others to follow”, the New Zealand Herald reports: ”There was dismay from the hosts, beaten by Argentina in the tournament opener, uncertainty about a sluggish England, while All Black and Wallaby supporters were in frothy moods after their demolition victories.”

Much the same could be read in Cape Town or Sydney, but in a quick survey of coaches in the Guinness Premiership — one English, one Scottish, one Welsh and an Australian who played for Ireland — opinion ranged from Richard Hill, who thinks the alarm bells are ringing for England, to Brian Smith, who believes the northern hemisphere will wax stronger as the tournament progresses.

Hill, who coaches Bristol, explained that the problems are not fundamental for Ireland, Wales and Scotland, but he has grave doubts about England in the run-up to September 14’s game against South Africa at Stade de France.

”It is very difficult to understand why all the teams that have played against Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales are playing well, while the error count of the British teams has been very poor — it’s just basic execution which is going wrong and the coaches have been quite open about it,” said Hill, who played 30 times for England, including in the 1991 World Cup final against Australia at Twickenham.

”The United States, Canada, Namibia and even Portugal have all looked after the ball. They keep it in hand and have good phases and continuity, whereas the British teams have gone about two or three phases and made a mistake. There seems to be no continuity in their game.”

Hill said that the rise of the underdog had so far made for a ”lovely World Cup, but as a supporter of England there are alarm bells ringing.

”I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with Scotland, Ireland and Wales — they have just got to stop making those errors. With England, though, the most concerning thing is what is our best team. With the other three you could pick their team, but out of the four home nations, I’m not entirely certain what our best XV is at the moment.”

He is expecting changes for Friday, but said that he understood the dilemma facing the England head coach, Brian Ashton.

”As a coach, when you are doing poorly the difficulty is not to try to alter too much — one thing, possibly two things at the most. As Brian has said, he has to have a good look at the video of the United States game before he decides where he puts the emphasis and what he has to do. Otherwise you just run around in circles.”

Ian McGeechan, the former Lions and Scotland coach and now director of rugby at Wasps, and Kingsley Jones, the coach of Sale alongside the Frenchman, Philippe Saint Andre, both point to the contact area as the major difference in the way north and south are playing in France.

”We seem to have lost the aggression in the contact areas,” said Jones. ”I was educated in New Zealand and it’s the same in the Welsh valleys, where they hit lumps out of each other. We seem to have lost that in the Premiership. For me, that’s the biggest thing that has been evident over the [previous] weekend. Over there, contact is everything. Even Namibia against Ireland — they were so physical.”

McGeechan said: ”You have to say they have all been much sharper, more intense, more consistently aggressive with their rugby and certainly playing at a different pace. It’s not a different game, but they are very aggressive at the contact area, which to me determines how you can play. They are winning that battle and that allows them to play quicker and with more intensity.”

Smith, who was capped by both Australia and Ireland and is now director of London Irish, is not surprised at the speed in which the southern hemisphere has left the blocks ”when you consider that their teams have come in on the back of Super 14 and the Tri-Nations.

”They’ve been really primed, whereas the northern hemisphere guys have had a lot of preparation but not necessarily a lot of games. There are a lot of players going into the World Cup with only a little playing time under their belts and I’d expect to see them getting better and better.” — Â

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