By Shane Thomas
England's 30-3 defeat to Wales in the Six Nations was a savage and dizzying one. Suffering their worst ever loss to their near neighbours, it left many pondering what's missing with this England team. Personally, I think the key ingredient is... well, a bit of swagger.
We should remember where the England rugby union team were when Stuart Lancaster took over as head coach (initially on a temporary basis). The squad was in disarray, coming off a dismal display at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and then damaged further by embarrassing revelations on the rotten culture than existed in the camp.
Into the breach stepped Lancaster, at the time a relative unknown. Not only that, but he was employed on an interim basis, while the RFU made overtures to appoint Nick Mallett as the permanent coach. Anyone who has observed the travails of Rafa Benitez's time as the Chelsea manager, will appreciate that Lancaster was hardly operating from a position of strength.
So he deserves a lot of credit for making good of a problematic situation. He started by making a key alteration to England's training camp. The players were used to jetting off to Portugal for warm weather training in rather salubrious surroundings. However, Lancaster changed the setting. Rather than train in the Iberian sun, he had his charges go through their paces in the more inclement conditions of Yorkshire.
Putting aside the asinine stereotype that the North of England is intrinsically a tougher place, it was a smart PR move. After the post-World Cup revelations, England's rugby union players were in serious danger of being perceived much like England's footballers, with all its negative connotations. Lancaster's first job was to heal the relationship between the players and the fans. And he's managed that by making this incarnation of the England team a humble one.
It seems to have become a Six Nations tradition for someone to brand the English as "arrogant" just before the competition begins. This time around it was former Scotland and Lions coach, Jim Telfer. Well, clearly he hasn't been paying attention. This England team have an unassuming air, a group of men who you would be happy for any of your siblings to go out with. It's not hard to picture captain Chris Robshaw helping out at a homeless shelter in his spare time.
And this approach has worked for England - up to a point. They dragged themselves out of their Rugby World Cup funk. Lancaster is now permanently ensconced as England head coach, with overreaching powers that now make him one of the most powerful men in English rugby union. So while England have their most solid foundations in years, they need to find a way to train on from this.
While I don't advocate England becoming a rugby hybrid of Kevin Pietersen and Adrien Broner, they need to add a more discernible confidence to their game. They have plenty of heart, doggedness and unity. But the devil and elan that separates a good side from one that wins trophies is absent. Players like Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, and Christian Wade need to be implemented along the artisansal abilities of Brad Barritt and Mike Brown.
And lest we forget Chris Ashton, whose career could fast go the way of Danny Cipriani. He is a microcosm of the problems England face. His cocksure joie de vivre, exemplified by the way he used to celebrate scoring tries has been conspicuous by its absence. Ashton currently looks like a neutered pitbull on England's right wing.
It's an inescapable fact that most of the best sporting sides have a swagger to them. Even England's World Cup winning team of 2003 had it. They may not have been an ostentatious bunch, but every time they went out to play, they looked at their opponents and thought, "You aren't as good as us. And over the next 80 minutes, we're going to prove it."
As unorthodox as this sounds, it may be an idea to get the England team to listen to the M.I.A song 'Paper Planes', and take some of the song's mindset out onto the pitch with them. It contains the line, "No-one on the corner has a swagga' like us." If England are to make their home World Cup of 2015 a successful one, they need to heed M.I.A's words, and add some swagger to their substance.
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