Heart-pumping stuffEd Hawkins wonders if England might finally be in better shape to face the southern hemisphere teams during the Autumn internationals
English rugby has lost its way since the 2003 World Cup triumph. Their win percentage has dipped to 44, ten points lower than its historic mark, they have used four different coaches and failed to win a Six Nations among claims that their players are not fit enough or good enough or both.
So the solution ahead of the Autumn internationals, where they will take on New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and South Africa, is obvious. Make the players wear GPS systems 24 hours a day for more than a year at £2,000 a pop.
They measure average speed, top speed, current heart rate, peak heart rate, average heart rate, average heart rate over the last minute, average heart rate over the last five minutes, time over a heart rate threshold set by the medical or conditioning staff, total distance travelled, distance travelled in the last minute, distance travelled in the last five minutes. And if you ask nicely it also makes a cup of tea.
Mumbo jumbo or not, coach Martin Johnson reckons it’s a winner and that may well be enough for punters considering putting their faith in England for the Test matches. During England’s horrible run, too often were they winning at half-time only to flag in the second period, infuriating their supporters who rightly demand that players are at least match-fit.
The question over whether the players that Johnson has at his disposal are good enough to beat the cream of the southern hemisphere (Samoa should not worry them) is much tougher to answer.
The recent Tri-Nations tournament was considered a classic thanks to the free-flowing rugby that was played and with England traditionally lagging behind – puffing and wheezing like the fat kid on the school cross-country run – their rivals from the south in terms of running game, one could be forgiven for writing them off.
Let’s not be too hasty, though. The first three rounds of the new Premiership season saw a glut of tries. The total number scored rose to 78, an increase of 56% from last season and the average number per match is now 4.33.
Certainly if this form can be transformed onto the international stage by England’s top men, then it is reasonable to expect that they can beat South Africa, go close against Australia and, well, er, not get humiliated by the All Blacks.
South Africa are suffering from the same post-World Cup malaise as England did following their triumph. Their pack, oddly for a nation obsessed with barbeques, lacks punch and they were ponderous in the Tri-Nations, managing only one win in their six outings.
Johnson’s men should be favourites for this contest on the handicap. South Africa have won the last two between the sides at Twickenham but previous to that they had lost six in a row. The latter statistic is more relevant to the 2010 ‘vintage’.
England beat Australia by a single point the last time the sides met, in Sydney earlier this year, but they had lost the last three by margins of 14, nine and 10 points. They get even less change out of the Kiwis, not winning since 2003 and suffering an average margin defeat of a massive 20.7 points.