English Rugby’s Darkest Days

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There was a moment just after half time in the England versus Uruguay match that summed up the host’s World Cup. With his team on the attack and the try line beckoning, England captain Chris Robshaw fumbled the simplest of passes and the chance was fluffed.

The slow motion replay, captured by a cameraman behind the posts, was almost comic: England’s blundering captain temporarily lost all coordination and looked like an oaf juggling an egg. The look on Robshaw’s face was a familiar one: forlorn, overwhelmed, lost.

If you live in cloud cuckoo land – much like RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie –you might think England played well last night. They didn’t. For the first sixty minutes they were clumsy and inaccurate. Much like they’ve been for the last four years.

You can forget about the flurry of tries at the end. The poor Uruguayans were dead on their feet. England were playing a team of semi-professionals – a bunch of guys who ply their trade in the second and third tiers of European rugby. An English championship side could probably beat them. Some of their players wouldn’t get into Bedford’s first XV.

When my club side, Worcester Warriors, were playing in the championship last season, we’d often pull away from the opposition in the last quarter. Most fully professional sides, who are well funded and boast an army of coaches and support staff, make their superior fitness tell in the last twenty minutes. It’s what happens.

For the first sixty minutes of yesterday’s ‘contest’ England needed their forward power to secure dominance. They made their extra kilo per man tell. Big deal. The real heroes last night were the plucky Uruguayan’s who played some good spirited rugby considering their disadvantages.

So what next for England? A new set of coaches would be a start. Let’s just hope that the men who thought the antidote to Martin Johnson’s inexperience was to appoint a coach with even less experience are nowhere near the process.

As the wise Dean Ryan said on Sky last weekend, England need to get their structure off the field right before they appoint a new head coach. They need to get qualified men making the big recruitment decisions. Laurence Dallaglio made exactly the same point yesterday on ITV. The RFU have appointed the wrong man three times in a row now. Who can trust them to do the right thing this time? Let’s just look back at the last twelve years …

When Clive Woodward’s great team eventually went stale – much like Andy Flower’s Ashes winners – the need for new ideas was painfully obvious. So what did the old farts do? They appointed Andy Robinson, Woodward’s right hand man. What on earth could Robinson tell the players that he hadn’t already told them a million times before? When fresh impetus was needed the suits opted for ‘same old’. And then they compounded the mistake by appointing Brian Ashton as Robinson’s temporary replacement – another guy who was all too familiar.

When the RFU finally made a clean break they appointed Martin Johnson, an inspirational captain who had never coached a team before. And when his inexperience was exposed they appointed Lancaster, a man who had won just two premiership matches in his entire career. It beggars belief. If the RFU are good at one thing, it’s doing the exact opposite of what common sense dictates.

So what next? My personal inkling is that the RFU will allow Lancaster to continue in his job. Why? Because they won’t want to admit they made a mistake by extending his contract until 2019 a few months ago – a decision which was absurd at the time and looks even more ridiculous now. That’s how English sporting bodies seem to operate I’m afraid.

Stuart Lancaster defended his record robustly at last night’s press conference. It was a sad and desperate exercise in selective amnesia and delusion. Let’s just take off the rose tinted spectacles, sponsored by O2 I imagine, and look at the facts …

Other than bringing back patriotic tub-thumping and overusing sporting clichés – name a modern international team that doesn’t ‘work hard’ and ‘play for the shirt’ – what has Lancaster actually achieved? I’ll tell you what: zero Six Nations championships, elimination in the group stages of a home world cup, a poor record against all the southern hemisphere giants, and a series of bad defeats in crunch matches. Remember Cardiff in 2013? It simply isn’t good enough.

Martin Johnson’s team actually won the Six Nations the year before Lancaster took over. He also got England out of the group stages of the World Cup. So how can anyone say that Lancaster has taken the team forward? All I’ve witnessed is an improvement in PR.

Although the players obviously have to take their share of the blame in all this, Lancaster has been culpable in all of England’s disasters over the last four years. And his biggest mistakes happened within the last month – thus proving he isn’t actually improving and learning on the job.

Lancaster regularly makes boneheaded selections; he lacks the ability to think clearly under pressure; his substitutions are formulaic and head-scratching. He talks a good game but has achieved nothing in his entire career – other than one promotion with Leeds. Some might say he’s a poor man’s Peter Moores. Sorry, Peter.

England have a good bunch of young players. They just need a steady hand and a wise head to lead them. Stuart Lancaster, for all his qualities as a man, is not up to the task. When Lancaster was initially appointed it was a monumental gamble. ‘Unproven’ was putting it mildly. His record now is one of proven failure. He cannot be trusted to make the right decisions at the right time. What a shame that he is too stubborn to resign – poor judgement yet again.

The sad truth is this: England have by far the least qualified coaching team of all the home nations. Lancaster is a mere pigmy in comparison to Wales’ Warren Gatland, Scotland’s Vern Cotter and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt – men with a proven track record in the world’s top competitions. Until this changes, we can expect England to be out-thought and out-coached again and again and again.

England have the richest and most powerful union in World Rugby. The RFU can afford a Rolls Royce of a head coach. So why should Ian Ritchie settle for an Austin Allegro? He wouldn’t drive one, so why hire one?

James Morgan

@DoctorCopy

7 Comments

  1. For me the results in the 6N haven’t been that bad. Both Wales and Ireland have been at the top of their game – and some of that is luck with talent. If we’re honest there isn’t a single English backrow player you’d back at the breakdown against Warburton.

    However, you look at how often Schmidt makes a positive difference and you have to feel that Lancaster isn’t the right man.

  2. Completely agreed. He also repeatedly made the easy decision, and avoided conflict – maybe the sign of a coach without the confidence to back himself that sustained prior success would have given him.

    He had to pick one of ford and Farrell, and drop the other completely – he didn’t. He had no breakdown specialist in the squad, and the best in the northern hemisphere wanted to play for him – he didn’t say that he’d resign if armitage wasn’t picked. He wanted burgess, but he wasn’t playing centre for his club – he picked him at centre. Etc etc.

    He was picked by the blazers because he’d be malleable, and he failed because he was malleable. The parallels with the cricket are clear.

  3. Some interesting quotes from England players in the Guardian:

    1) ““We haven’t finalised anything yet but the feeling is that the leadership group and senior players will collect feedback, probably in clubs and player groups. You’ve got to filter out some of the nonsense, the white noise and the individual frustrations to make sure we get a group appraisal” (Tom Wood).

    Hmm, bit suspicious about this. There is a danger of individual resentments leaking out – but also of valid points being surpressed (especially if they are criticisms of the leadership group or senior players).

    2) “We’ll get the right outcome. When you don’t succeed in an England shirt questions need asking but as long as no one questions our commitment, desire and togetherness as a team I’ll be happy.” (Tom Wood)

    Doesn’t this sort of contradict his first statement? If they were so together, why can’t they give individual feedback? The emphasis on togetherness as a team is also concerning – and familiar from the cricket team.

    3) “What’s important is we don’t look at Japan in 2019. First you’ve got to set goals like: ‘Let’s become the best team in the northern hemisphere, let’s win a Six Nations, win a grand slam.’ Let’s win those games so that, when the next World Cup comes along, we know what to do.” (Nick Easter)

    Okay, as a 37-year old Easter has a vested interest saying this – but I haven’t heard one serious rugby pundit or player arguing that players who’ll be too old at the next WC should be dropped now. Yet that was considered a whizzo idea for the cricket team – not that it was designed to get rid of ‘him’ and dumped when Plunkett was recalled because, by then, we’d all supposedly forgotten about ‘him’.

    Generally speaking, it is obviously good that there is going to be some sort of inquiry into the rugby team (unlike the Ashes whitewash, obviously) but I have concerns the process will be compromised and won’t go anywhere deep enough.

  4. why should Ian Ritchie settle for an Austin Allegro?

    And why should we settle for Ian Ritchie – or the invisible Rob Andrew ?

    • But Nigel and Guys, it gets even worse:

      I read that the Official Enquiry is supposed to be off-limits and that everything is up for review – except for Ian Ritchie’s position and handling of the whole sorry mess – Because Ian Ritchie has designated the remit of such an enquiry as such.

      An Oxy-MORON in full glory!

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