Peter Bills on rugby
Peter Bills is a rugby writer and commentator

Peter Bills: Northerners still clutching at air

Nick Easter of England (right) reaches for the catch. Photo / Getty Images
Nick Easter of England (right) reaches for the catch. Photo / Getty Images

An alien newly arrived from another world in time to watch the first weekend of the 2011 Rugby World Cup would have drawn a singular conclusion from the flurry of rugby activity.

Assuming he didn't make the mistake of going to Eden Park by train, our friend would have watched New Zealand score four tries in the opening 32 minutes against Tonga on Friday night.

Had he then turned his attention to England's match against Argentina in Dunedin the next night, he would have been confused. Just one try and only a single line break in 80 minutes from England?

Ah, his little scrawny face would have smiled. "I've got it - they are playing two different games."

Well done, sir; indeed they are.

Twenty five minutes into the England match on Saturday night, I called my son back in London.

"What time does the rugby begin?" I asked. His snort of derision echoed my feelings.

New Zealand's game, like the Auckland rail system on the night, may have become dislocated, especially in the second half. But at least before that, we saw some sweeping movements, constant off-loading, intricate balls skills and intelligent players thinking on their feet. In essence, they were attempting to play the modern game.

By contrast, whatever game England are trying to play, it sure isn't modern-day rugby.

You'll find copious England apologists who bang on endlessly about this being a sport that can be played in a variety of ways. And it can. But none of those apologists has ever answered this simple question - which game would most people prefer to see? One rich in invention, craft and skill, a blur of movement, excitement and continuity that still retains immense physicality or one which resembles trench warfare from World War I?

"My word we've had a good day, Sergeant - we've taken nine yards of enemy territory."

The progress of the England rugby team across Dunedin's stunning new stadium on Saturday night mirrored that of the British Army at the Somme. Mainly stuck with nowhere to go, and at best lurching forward uneasily in first gear. This abomination of a display was a disgrace to the good name of rugby football. Doesn't anyone in England understand that you can now play some cracking rugby under these much welcomed new law interpretations?

Is anyone in English rugby seriously of the belief that what Kurtley Beale and Co do for the Wallabies, what Israel Dagg, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, SBW and their mates do for the All Blacks, isn't actually any good for the game and is an interminable bore to watch?

I suppose somewhere in the rugby jungle you might find a cauliflower-eared old prop who thinks the modern game is rubbish and we ought to go back to the old days, such as the match in the 1960s when there were 112 lineouts in a single game between Scotland and Wales.

But my money is on our alien mate lighting up with excitement when he sees the counter-attacking of Dagg, the subtle skills of Carter, the delicate ball skills of the physically giant Nonu and the clever off-loading attributes of Williams. Then there's the Aussies, who can match most of that.

By contrast, England can offer a fullback (Ben Foden) and a right wing (Chris Ashton) who are never set up and as a consequence, are criminally under-used. English rugby is stuck so far back in the Dark Ages that even when Foden burst through at one point, left wing Delon Armitage didn't understand that all he had to do to guarantee a try was close the gap and make it a simple two-on-one against the Argentina fullback.

It was pitiful to see such a chance go to waste. But then, if you don't fully embrace the new style of rugby and understand its intricacies, you won't have much chance of mastering its arts.

And arguably worse from an English point of view, their players apparently do not know the laws of the game. Some of Nick Easter's technical offences over the last 12 months in an England jersey would embarrass a No 8 in the 4th XV at Old Rubberduckians.

England couldn't play, couldn't stay on the right side of the referee and couldn't even kick goals, the one thing they're supposed to be good at. The comments from England manager Martin Johnson afterwards tell you everything about the mentality of English rugby men: "In the circumstances, that was a good win, a fantastic win."

It is undeniable that the All Blacks lost their way in the second half against Tonga. One reason for that was the ludicrous number of stoppages allowed by Irish referee George Clancy. Someone has to do something about not tolerating that nonsense anymore and Steve Walsh made a good start in the France/Japan match on Saturday evening.

England couldn't blame the referee or anyone for their pitiful display.

Even before halftime, my alien pal would have decided he was better off watching the 100m sprint final back on his own world.

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