This was my first return to watching an England game at Twickenham in about eight years. It's been impossible for me to afford tickets until now, and even then there are few available for direct purchase. The ones I ended up using were available through my Dad, after he got selected in his local Club's 'ballot.' Needless to say I was very much looking forward to watching England play what was a fatigued South African side.
The day started well, with me making the journey down to Richmond, and parking in an ever-so-tight space at Richmond Station's NCP Car Park (due to my idiocy of not having any cash on me). It worked out ok, as I was told by my father that it would be just a short walk to the ground.
It was a nice little walk, though not little at all - around 3 miles. Luckily, despite the freezing weather, there was no snow, and I enjoyed the refreshing walk, surrounded by like-minded fans heading to the game. It was great to see some South African's all dressed and painted up.
If you're only bothered about my opinion on the game, skip to "The Game" section. The next section can be skipped if required.
A consequence of walking alongside other people though, is that you can eavesdrop on their conversations. One group of men, having alighted a tinted windowed people carrier in the middle of the A306 (as I was crossing the round in front of them) managed to really get my back up. Whilst walking along in their midst, they were talking about the affects of the Credit Cruch.. all perfectly happy with themselves that they were 'above' it. One retorted "I recently was forced (sic) to buy a new car in the current climate, as my son, 18, had just passed his driving test and had been promised a new Audi A4 as a reward, and a replacement for his VW Golf."
"It's like I just walked in their and named my price."
--Biggest Twonk in World
Their next topic of conversation was "How did we get the tickets for Twickenham?"
"How did we get the tickets for Twickenham?"
Twickenham was redeveloped in the early 90s, and has just had the final stand finished (The South Stand). The money for this development was raised by corporate and personal debentures. This means that an individual or company pay a certain amount, and are then given a seat for x number of years. This works well, however, with the Twickenham model, it had been criticised for having too high a proportion of corporate tickets - and the fans on modest incomes are excluded.
In order to combat this, a certain number of tickets are allocated to each club around the country.. though I'm not sure how many tiers of the league are covered. The clubs can then decide how to distribute the tickets within their club. Some of them give them to the best attended, others hold ballots .etc. One thing that clubs must NOT do - is resell them to other distribution companies (i.e. hospitality).
Well, as I was with these guys walking to the ground, one of them asked the fated question.. and the answer was that he'd got them through a hospitality company... rather than through his club. He was then asked why he didn't get them through his club, and evidently they'd struck a 'deal' with a hospitality company..
His friend then replied that perhaps they should get a corporate debenture, as they weren't too expensive @ £15,000 a seat. The other friend then piped up that he may just get a personal one, and that he'd spoken to someone at Twickenham about getting one (for a similar price).
However, the thing that really got my back up, was that the first guy said.
"I've done a deal with my club, that I pay a bit extra, and I make sure that I get half their allocation. I then distribute that to all my clients. Sure, it's a bit extra, but it's less than having to pay for a debenture, and everybody's happy."
Now, I don't object to successful people from being able to buy a debenture and get a seat, no matter how expensive it appears. I'd love to become 'successful' and have £15,000 spare to spend on a seat. It's a reward for my hard work, and that money goes on to fund the sport that I enjoy. It's a great plan, and good for the game.
What I object to, is guys that obviously have the money to spend.. yet still look for loopholes and dodgy grey areas in order to get the best value deal for themselves.. and ignore the consequences of their actions. They're stopping the less well-off fans from attending... I'd have loved to have gotten the name of the club, (and the name of the guy) - but unfortunately they both were not mentioned.
The game itself started badly, and got slowly worse. I got one of these RefLive! earphones.. which is some kind of FM radio which receives broadcasts from the referee's microphone. It was really good for understanding what was going on.. and unlike the TV when they tune in-and-out, it provided a revelation during scrimmaging and when the ref was giving the players a "talking to."
England were poor, at a fundamental level. Their handling was exceptionally bad, their kicks misguided and their passing futile. There was no 'depth' to their attacking line, and only once did an English player receive the ball moving forward at a decent rate of knots. It was almost as though England were playing netball, with the receiver as static as a snowman. (topical). Each time the ball went from wing to wing, England were lucky to move forward 5 meters; sideways they probably covered 50 times as much ground as going forward. Everything was very slow.
The first good bit of rugby was a run made by Paul Sackey, which ended up with him taking a fairly big knock to his leg. He thought he could run it off.. he was wrong.. yet 70 minutes later and he finished the game.. a lumbering shadow of his true capability. It was a bad decision, and the rest of the 81,000 fans there would probably agree with me. He should have left the field within 5, and if Martin Johnson didn't want to call it - Sackey should have made the decision himself. There were two clear cut chances when a fully-fit Sackey would have grabbed the ball - at pace - and finished with a try. Instead, handling errors due to him being short of the pace expected by the passer meant that these chances were missed.
I don't want to fault Martin Johnson for the performance, as he's a new guy in charge... but rather than come up with fantastic ideas, and set-plays.. as is the American Football way (a sport which Johnson adores) - England need to get the basics right. Handling errors were abundant, and the passing was obvious. There was only one move that showed any degree of passing competence, and that was the aforementioned one which ended with Sackey's injury.
England need to play deeper, faster and savvier. There was no point in Cipriani being on the pitch to direct anything today, decent passes sweeping from wing to wing would have been enough to get passed what was a fatigued South Africa side. I don't think the score flattered them.. England deserved to get trounced - but each one of their tries was a result of England incomptence, rather than South African magic.
It's the little things...
One difference that really stood out for me since my last visit, is that the numbers on the players shirts are now almost unreadably small. When Clive Woodward took over as England boss, I recall him saying that in order to build up the team, he removed all references of past greatness. Pictures of England's successes were removed, and awards removed from the changing room and tunnel - for those were not the successes of the current team.. but their ancestors. In order to be able to get those things back up on the wall.. the current team needed to perform to win them themselves.. only then would they be returned.
I wonder if since Johnson has become Manager - references to his teams' triumphs have been removed. It's time to draw a line under Englands past acheivements and status, and accept that the current team isn't good enough. For me, the post-world cup years (2004-2007) were a period of indiscipline for the England team. Silly penalties were given away for technical indiscipline and poor handling.. by God's grace these seemed to magically evapourate during the last world cup - which is the only reason England were able to progress so far. Instead of building on their unexepected success.. by analysing what caused it and noting the difference - England have regressed to where they were in 2004.
England's individuals need to stand up and be counted. Get the numbers made bigger on their shirts so they know that everyone knows it's them who's throwing the decisive pass; taking the tackle. Too many players today looked scared of the tackle, running away from it and dropping the ball rather than taking it in order for the play to be recycled. The forwards didn't want the ball, so spent their time piling on the ruck to give the backs their chance.. and the backs didn't want to be tackled so ran sideways or backwards.
I can see England getting trounced by the All Blacks next week should they put in a performance similar to the one shown today.. and wouldn't be surprised if they broke 50. However, many of the errors that the team showed today don't occur when the players play for their club teams. Handling errors are mainly due to confidence issues - and that may be improved by inspirational leadership from M.J. I would be massively suprised if he's able to turn it around before next week.. but the talent is there.. it's just a case of focusing on the basics, and getting the TEAM to believe.