Rugby: Doubts surround inconsistent England

Steve Hepburn profiles England in our series looking at the six teams visiting Dunedin during the Rugby World Cup.

The English. Love them or hate them, there can be no denying one fact - they appear to save their best for the World Cup.

In 2003, they were champions. At the last tournament, the English came back from being absolutely smashed by South Africa in pool play to face the same team in the final.

And although it lost that match, with an ounce of luck and one or two calls going its way England could have successfully defended the trophy.

But despite that good record at the World Cup, not many are giving the English much hope in New Zealand. They do not have a great record in this country of late.

The English rose last faced the All Blacks down under in 2008 and never got within a sniff of the All Blacks in two tests that year.

In this season's Six Nations, the side won its first four games but then rather limply went down 24-8 to Ireland in the final game. Though that defeat was not costly and England won the tournament, it still kept the seeds of doubt active in the back of English fans' heads.

There remain those lingering questions over whether England is consistent or ruthless enough.

The side seems to take a while to put a team away and is playing somewhat below its potential.

England basically needs to play to its absolute best in the next few weeks to maintain its proud record in the tournament.

The scrum is solid, built around Andy Sheridan, although he needs to bring something more to the table than just holding one side of the scrum up.

Courtney Lawes is an exciting young lock, while veteran Simon Shaw is always good for some quality minutes and will enjoy coming back to Dunedin where he once played for Pirates.

The loose forwards are steady, though there must be doubts about skipper Lewis Moody, who has been plagued by injury.

Tom Wood should enjoy coming south to catch up with some friends he made when he played a season in North Otago.

Halfback Ben Youngs is key, while Johnny Wilkinson will no doubt again kick the goals, though there are questions as to whether he is still the same force as eight or even four years ago.

On the outside, wingers Chris Ashton and Mark Cueto, and fullback Ben Foden have plenty of pace and need the ball as often as possible.

Whether big midfielders Manu Tuilagi, Mike Tindall and Shontayne Hape can give them enough ball is one question yet to be answered. 

England: the facts

Capital: London
Population: 52 million
• A poll declared the greatest Englishman to be Winston Churchill, a man who was born in a cloakroom, did a good gorilla impression and often did government business in bed. He also led the country through World War 2.

• There are believed to be 53,000 pubs in England, 8000 Indian restaurants and 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

• Skim milk, eyeball, hot-blooded, household words, obscene: These words were all invented by William Shakespeare, England's greatest wordsmith.

Coach: Martin Johnson.

Captain: Loose forward Lewis Moody.

Previous World Cups: Won in 2003, finalist in 1991 and 2007, semifinalist in 1995, quarterfinalist in 1987 and 1999.

Games: v Argentina, Dunedin, September 10; v Georgia, Dunedin, September 18; v Romania, Dunedin, September 24; v Scotland, Auckland, October 1.

Three key players

Johnny Wilkinson:The match-winner from 2003 is back for his third World Cup and appears to be running into some nice form. Maybe not as quick as he once was but still a dead-eye with the boot.

James Haskell: England has depth in the loose forward department but Haskell has that ability for the ball to seemingly follow him. Tough on the drive and not one to shirk a hard task.

Chris Ashton: a convert from rugby league, Ashton has become a key strike weapon for the English. Scored with his first touch in rugby after defecting from Wigan. Not a huge man but he knows the way to the tryline.



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