Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Gavin Mairs: England's fall from 2003 compounded by latest farce

A week that has given us everything from the sublime to the ridiculous threatens to end in a farce tonight in what is meant to be the first seismic encounter of the World Cup pool stages.

That reigning champions England have been reduced to such a shambles for their crunch pool A clash with South Africa is now overshadowing Argentina's heroic defeat of hosts France last Friday.

With Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley both ruled out with injury, England coach Brian Ashton has turned to former Wigan rugby league star Andy Farrell and experienced Mike Catt to pull the side's strings at out-half, a position that Farrell has no club experience at, never mind in the Test arena.

Meanwhile Martin Corry, ditched as captain when Ashton took over from Andy Robinson at the turn of the year, returns to leadership duty in the absence of Phil Vickery who has been banned for two games for a trip on USA captain Paul Emerick.

Even if Farrell, in what will be only his seventh Test match, interchanges with the hugely-experienced but tactically limited Catt, it does nothing to diminish the glaring fact that the defending champions are in a complete state of disarray.

Ashton has also been forced to name two scrum-halves - Andy Gomersall and Peter Richards - on the bench due to a dearth of backs because of either illness or injuries.

Four years ago, nobody could touch Sir Clive Woodward's well-oiled and merciless machine. Comparison between the two line-ups must make every England fan wince and their fall from power is all the more remarkable given that the Rugby Football Union is by far the most financially powerful governing body in the world game.

All that investment, all that planning and it seems Ashton is reduced to picking names out of a hat.

That Farrell was to be solely tasked with the intricacies of out-half before Ashton backtracked and hinted that he would share the duties with Catt when he has to date struggled with his tasks in the midfield is simply mind-blowing. It is a position that makes or breaks a side, which directs their attacking and defensive patterns.

South Africa will be licking their lips, even without Schalk Burger, who yesterday saw his four-match ban for a high tackle on Samoa scrum-half Junior Polu reduced to two games, and inside centre Jean de Villiers, missing with a bicep injury.

It is hard to see any way out for England, who even failed to get a four-try bonus point against the USA last weekend. And the physical Samoans lie in wait in the final pool match. Should they scrap through in second place in pool A, the prospect of beating Australia in the quarter-finals looks well beyond them.

Meanwhile, Ireland, after a week of navel-gazing and soul-searching, should get back to some kind of form tomorrow night against Georgia in Bordeaux.

It has been a tough week for Eddie O'Sullivan's side, who saw their pool D blown wide open last Friday when Argentina got the tournament off to the best possible start with a stunning upset against France.

I believe the pressure to run in a big score in the wake of the Pumas' victory hampered the Irish against Namibia, who showed admiral courage and passion in sticking it to their illustrious opponents. The crowd at the Stade Chaban Delmas also deserve lavish praise for creating a tremendous atmosphere in what on paper was hardly the biggest draw of the weekend.

The stakes now couldn't be higher, but in a sense that could turn to Ireland's advantage if they are serious about going further than they have ever done before at a World Cup - ie beyond the quarter-finals.

Avoiding the awesome-looking All Blacks in the last eight must be achieved at all costs and to do that Ireland must win the pool. Argentina's victory over France has increased the possibility that Ireland could crash out at the pool stages but at the same it has opened more avenues to finishing top.

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