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Spectator Sport

Foul play

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

12 March 2008

12:00 AM

Two dismal showings by England teams in less than 24 hours make the strongest hand reach for the Paracetamol. What on earth are England playing at? Stuffed by the Scots in a Six Nations match of mind-numbing tedium, then a few hours later the cricketers humiliated on the other side of the world by New Zealand in the first Test. Let’s look at expectation — and coaches.

In the Ashes series of 2005, thrilling sure, but over time elevated into some preposterous mythic feat, there was roughly a cigarette paper between the teams. Or a dropped catch — Warne’s off Pietersen at the Oval. But it was like England were the all-conquering West Indians of the 1980s. Please. The Ashes seems to have marked the end of a process, rather than the beginning. Since then England’s bowlers, Monty apart, have gone backwards, and shouldn’t they be a bit fitter?

The England coach Peter Moores was given a fairly tough welcome. I doubt things will improve. Even the amiable Darren Gough said in a radio interview after the Hamilton Test that listening to Moores made him want to go to sleep. When the efficient but lugubrious Duncan Fletcher quit last year, England had the chance to appoint Tom Moody, the aggressive and exuberant Aussie and Worcester batsman, as coach. Who would you rather see on the balcony, Moody or Moores? And it was the manner of the Hamilton defeat, not the result, that was so gutting: scoring at about two an over is synapse-stunning wretchedness. Moores should be giving these players the bollocking of their lives. But would they listen?

Which is where Shaun Edwards comes in. The most brilliant rugby league player of his generation, taking Wigan to all the honours the game has, he has never played a competitive game of union. But he has become a peerless coach, first with Wasps, and now with, er, England surely? No, Wales, where as defensive coach he should this weekend bring the red jerseys another Six Nations Grand Slam. He’s inspiring, hard, thoughtful, passionate and innovative and he has strewn the opposition to bits. The disgraceful failure of the blazers at Twickenham to hire Edwards should bring a case of industrial negligence against Rob Andrew, England’s not universally loved director of elite rugby.

Edwards was offered the Saxons, the England B-team, and I’m told £18 grand, but he wanted first-team international rugby. Warren Gatland, Wales’s head coach, and not a man to trifle with, then called Edwards, who had worked with him at Wasps, and offered a proper deal to a real rugby giant. And still only part-time for heaven’s sake.

Edwards is a proud northerner, and a proud Englishman, and a man of great emotion. You can see why Wales play their hearts out for him and Gatland, a former All Black who was ever the stand-in hooker to the legendary Sean Fitzpatrick so never got the attention he deserved. But when men like Edwards and Gatland tell you to do something, you listen. I’m not sure that’s quite the same with Brian Ashton, England’s coach and a one-time scrum-half for Lancashire, or Peter Moores. Both nice guys, but is that enough?

England’s miraculous turnaround in the rugby World Cup last year in France was sensational, gravity-defying, but baffling. And getting to the final, where they were justly beaten, delayed a proper reorganisation. The awful performances against Wales, Italy and Scotland must bring about change — and not just the sacking of Jonny Wilkinson. Maybe England are playing a brilliant long game: allowing Edwards to get experience elsewhere before bringing him in for the next World Cup. I hope so, but I doubt it.

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