In 1997, just as the English RFU was striding purposefully into the professional era complete with a Nike swoosh on the hallowed white of its national team kit, I came across a T-shirt with the following slogan:
"There are still hard and fast rules to rugby…
You've got to be hard and you've got to be fast."
This provoked mixed feelings. I liked its no-nonsense sentiment but I loathed its brutal truth and despaired at my failure to pass the test, to measure up in the most macho of sports. You see, I was neither blessed with speed nor an ox-like constitution. I did have a neck, unlike the bulls packing down against me in the front row, and bleep tests and Cambridge runs were harrowing experiences for a flat-footed plodder like me.
On the positive side, I was rangy and stoic with a healthy disregard for my own welfare. But above all, and this to me is the enduring appeal of the game, I could see a way to contribute despite my apparent physical shortcomings. Rugby is the archetype team sport, "the world in union". Very democratic. It's about individual players fulfilling specific roles with several responsibilities. Simultaneously, each is reliant upon the other to be in the right place at the right time – and to make the right decisions when they get there. Do I go to ground or go into contact? Shall I go to the blindside if I sniff a gap or should I move towards my teammates and set up a maul? After a catch and drive at the line-out, how far is too far?
Some of my happiest times have been on the rugby pitch, taking up the challenge side by side with teammates, who swiftly became friends. As a player, I prided myself on honesty, an attitude to the game that former Scottish and British Lions coach Jim Telfer so powerfully evoked in this speech in 1997. Here's where I measured up: doing the basics well, knowing my place (in every respect), keeping it simple (forwards go forward) and breaking my back. Then I'd wake up the next day and try to be better. Unfortunately rugby is the most unforgiving of contact sports and if you don't maintain your training or adapt as your body changes, it's time to switch to the round ball or, worse still, trudge off to the gym once every week. Then, when the game is on, you get all moist-eyed with nostalgia over a Guinness at the pub.
So why am I ranting as if "I could have been a contender"? Well I like many rugby fans have been following England's fortunes in the autumn internationals and despairing at what I've seen despite the promise shown at the Six Nations earlier this year. This group of players is as "hard and fast" as any of its predecessors but that's not enough. It never has been.
Let's be clear: Stuart Lancaster's side trail behind the more aggressive yet clinical southern hemisphere sides but there is a solid nucleus of talent there that could challenge for the next World Cup in 2015, particularly as they will be on home soil. However there is much work to do and this team must be in intensive learning mode at all times. My main concern, perhaps confusion, is how a squad of elite players can be so clueless on the pitch, particularly when the errors are unforced. Against both Australia and South Africa they failed to do the basics well, be resilient and compete for the full 80 minutes. These sides were some way off their best, both in terms of performance and personnel. And yet England failed to turn the screw at Twickenham. Meanwhile the coaching staff consider the close scores, and not the performances, as being the main indication of this side's progress. Will they learn from those mistakes?
We're deep into the professional age now, a new frontier of sports science, fitness and performance where players are more likely to be undergoing cryotherapy in an ice bath after a game than downing a beer in a hot one with 20 other players. A world of possibilities where guys such as the newcomer Tom Youngs can successfully move from centre to hooker in a handful of years. While the athletic prowess of a starting 15 has improved by leaps and bounds, application of technique and force of discipline have not. Here are a few gripes that keep popping into my head when watching England: missed tackles, incorrect body positions when going into contact. slow rucking, not running straight and taking the ball at pace on the gain line, protecting 'the pill', keeping ball in hand when overlaps appear, passing to the man on the shoulder…
It's the sideways running that's perhaps most irritating (I'd be threatened with countless laps for committing such a horrid offence). We've all seen it and read the recurring criticisms of "dull" England, struggling to get over the gain line. Well before we even consider imagination and ball-playing instinct, Lancaster's team has muddled through these autumn internationals with a mixture of indecision, inertia and panic. Robshaw's hesitation in the dying seconds of the South Africa game was merely symptomatic of a deeper malaise (although England had never once looked like scoring a try up to that point, so why not kick?).
Why can't ball carriers, that's everybody and not just our go-to guy Tuilagi, hit the ball at pace? I would question the coaching staff as much as the players. Yes individuals such as the fly-half have a responsibility to set the trajectory, to get their line moving, but a rugby ball often goes through several pairs of hands in the straight-running All Blacks, regardless of the number on the their backs. Why should it be any different for the men in white?
Whether from set piece or in open play there is a distinct lack of variety in our game. Very few dummies, miss passes, different angles of running. I sometimes wonder what the backs coaches are paid to do (there are two). At a time like this I pull out the 'playbook', or rather a sheet, that one of my old rugby coaches gave to each squad member in my college U16 team.
Armed with these moves, our fly-half could pull the trigger in any number of situations using a host of different strike runners. And blunt instruments like myself would be there to "blitz" and present the ball for the scrum half to go again. Now consider that this was under-16 level. Such tactics are applicable to all levels of the game. Besides making crucial errors (missed kicks, dropped passes, weak tackles) another way to lose an international is by being predictable. This England team is in danger of becoming just that.
Now I am a loyal supporter and I want to be optimistic. There are encouraging signs. Firstly, the squad is still evolving (the team to face the All Blacks averages less than 14 caps and 25 years per player, compared to the 49 caps and 28 years of the current world champions). They must have time to develop an stronger understanding among one another. England do have dynamic game changers in the shape of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Owen Farrell. Steffon Armitage's scavenging could be the missing link in the back row, should Lancaster choose to look across the Channel, and the injured Ben Foden is still one of our brightest and most intelligent backs.
Secondly, history is on their side. In 1997 an England team in its infancy under Clive Woodward, and skippered by a 26-year-old Lawrence Dallaglio (the same age as current captain Chris Robshaw, incidentally) followed feeble displays against Australia and South Africa with a rousing 26-26 draw against an unbeaten New Zealand. It was a formative match for that squad – a "how good can we really be?" moment – and from there they embarked on a painstaking, detail-oriented quest to reach the summit of world rugby. And not by aspiring to be like another team; they wanted to set a new benchmark in the game by being the best that they could be. Last week's ITV tribute to Dallaglio documents this shift in mindset particularly well.
So instead of being harder and faster than the next man, perhaps it is head and heart that really matter. When you stand toe to toe with the best and refuse to back down. When to avert danger in certain areas of the pitch and create it in others. When you fight for every inch of every battle in every minute. And when you reach the seventieth minute and your chance comes, you have the vision to see it and the belief to convert. When you find a way to win. Let's hope that England stand up on Saturday against McCaw, Carter, Nonu, Dagg and co, safe in the knowledge that what they learn about themselves could pay back handsomely in three years' time.