Nick Cain: Robshaw got it wrong but so did Lancaster

Nigel OwensThe debate over Chris Robshaw’s late penalty call against South Africa has raged all week, and nothing has been added to it that even remotely persuades me that the England captain’s original call was the right one. The fact that Robshaw not only tried to change his decision on the pitch to a kick for the corner, but in a post-match broadcast interview admitted that he would have done things differently given the chance, confirmed that he, too, recognised he had got it wrong.
However, the Karma Sutra-style contortions that some players and commentators got themselves into in support of Robshaw’s penalty kick were extraordinary, mirroring the lack of clarity that surrounds this England team. At the heart of much of the defence of the skipper seemed to be a confused message which put Robshaw’s credentials as a likeable, stalwart, hard-working, relatively inexperienced international captain ahead of the crux of the matter, which is whether he made a bad decision which saw England squander their best chance of beating the Springboks.
To say, as the England head coach Stuart Lancaster and others did afterwards, that the game was lost as much by other missed opportunities during the game as his captain’s 77th minute directive to kick the penalty and narrow the deficit to 16-15, was inaccurate and also completely missed the point. Close matches like this England v South Africa Test are frequently decided in the closing minutes by successful pre-planned moves or strategies, and Lancaster’s team were found wanting and it denied them the chance to inject some momentum into their autumn campaign.
The most baffling reason put forward for the penalty being the right choice was the post-facto rationale that somehow it was pre-ordained that the Springbok fly-half, Patrick Lambie, would kick the ball straight into touch on the full from the re-start, thereby gifting England a scrum put-in on half-way from which to construct a winning score.
photo CainThe fact that Lambie came within a couple of feet of putting the ball straight out is something that Robshaw could not in any way have assumed, or foreseen, given that the vast majority of re-starts at Test level do not go into touch. Mouritz Botha’s fumble suggested it might not have gone into touch on the full in any case, and England were therefore faced with what was the most predictable outcome from a restart of having to carry the ball for 20 metres before they even reached the half-way line.
The odds stacked against England were even higher because the conditions were wet, and much of their re-start work, ball control, and passing had been poor. This militated against them getting within range before making an error. Furthermore, Owen Farrell is not yet in the same league as Jonny Wilkinson, or his Saracens club-mate, Charlie Hodgson, when it comes to kicking match-winning drop-goals – as his last minute grass-cutter drop attempt in the 14-14 Port Elizabeth draw on the summer tour highlighted.
England’s lack of success in scoring off driving mauls from 5 metre lineouts in the last five years is also a rank excuse for not remedying the problem and going for broke, with an unconverted touchdown offering them the chance of a 17-16 victory and almost certainly depriving South Africa of any time to come back at them.
Ian Foster, the All Black assistant coach, may have been mischievous when he held two fingers and a cocked thumb to his temple after being asked for a Kiwi view on Robshaw’s decision-making, but it was an accurate reading of Lancaster’s team not daring to win.
If the English coaches wanted an example of how to construct a winning score from such a 5 metre lineout drive they need only have borrowed the drill that Wales used to score in the closing stages of their tussle with New Zealand a couple of hours later.
One of Warren Gatland’s biggest coaching attributes is his ability to think outside the box tactically, and he showed it again by piling most of his backs into the lineout giving the Welsh a numerical superiority of about 13 to 7. The catch-and-drive was text book and the weight and power of the Welsh phalanx brushed the All Black pack aside with Scott Williams touching down.
That England did not appear to have the tactical nous or the adventurous spirit of the Welsh in their matches against Australia or the Boks underlined their learning curve under Lancaster, a process that reached glorious fulfilment yesterday.
As for Robshaw, he made a duff call, and as he acknowledged, the buck stops with him for decisions on the field – but he should not carry the can if the England coaches did not equip the team with the tactical variations and detail to do the job.
The All Black result would suggest lessons have been learned.

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