Coaches must take share of responsibility for England’s failures

After another insipid performance against Ireland, there has been a real desire to find out precisely what is at the root of England’s malaise. This week is likely to see another uninspiring selection, and Stuart Peel wonders whether the coaches are doing a good enough job.

John Wells could soon be in the firing line

England just seems incapable of taking that big stride forward and intersperse promising passages which, if you squint and blur your eyes, could be recognised as decent rugby, with phases which make you want to scratch your eyes out completely or at the very least bury your head in the nether regions of the sofa.

The fundamental issue is that the players seem to lack trust in what they are doing and for this the coaches must take responsibility. The players either do not have a game plan, are uncomfortable with what they are trying to do, do not believe in it or are fearful that they will be vilified for a wrong decision. The upshot is that no decisions are made with any conviction or no decisions are made at all. The fault here must lie with the people who are preparing the players because they are essentially good players who look utterly confused.

Much of the focus in the past week has been upon the abject lack of discipline. Leaving aside Danny Care’s attack of little-man syndrome, England have been serial offenders at the breakdown, coming in the wrong side, going off their feet or, most often, handling in the ruck. That they feel the need to do this suggests that they see this as the only way to prevent the opposition from scoring. They are not just having a go at the ball and then leaving it, content with having bought their defensive line a valuable 2 seconds to organise themselves. They are going further than that and the only explanation for this is that they do not trust their defence.

By extension, because they are all players who can tackle, this must mean that they do not trust their defensive system. Confident sides are prepared to say to the opposition ‘go on, have the ball, do your worst’, backing themselves to repel any attack and eventually turn the ball over. Not so England.

Things are little better in attack. When Mathew Tait burst through the defence from an inside pass, I nearly had a heart attack. Put aside the fact for now that he butchered an overlap from which Riki Flutey could have walked backwards under the posts to score if he had so chosen. England had run a move, an actual move. We haven’t seen a move from England for what seems like an eternity. Which begged the question, why?

They ran that move with Tait late in the game. Why not run it with Sackey early in the game and sew doubts among the defence because you have shown an ability to attack from several angles? The players are capable of carrying them out, so why are they not? Again the only explanations are either a lack of trust in the moves or that they have been told not to do them.

Things are even worse once England get beyond second phase. Any team worth their salt have patterns which they run here, a method for breaking down the defence, winning good ball and ensuring that the right men get the ball in the right areas at the right time. If England have such patterns then they are doing a very good job at disguising them. The fact that the players are not running them or do not carry them out with any conviction suggests that, once again, they do not trust them or that the message is not getting through from the coaching team.

At the start of the season, there was evidence that England were prepared to counter attack, to keep an eye on where the space is and look to utilise it. Often the execution was poor but the intentions were commendable. There is none of that now. It is either one-dimensional and half-hearted with ball in hand or aimless, brainless kicking. Why? Something has obviously changed and it must be the messages which are being sent to the players and the lack of conviction suggests they do not believe in those messages. Are they so programmed that they are trying to do what they have been told when, given what is unfolding in front of them, they think should be doing something completely different but are afraid that if they do they will be castigated for ‘coming off the plan’?

Clearly this is all just speculation but given that the coaches appear just as bemused and clueless as to what is going on as everyone else, there’s no crime in that. There is no joy in the way England play the game. The players look tortured, muddled and flat and this transmits itself to the supporters. It is just not a very uplifting experience to watch England at present and has not been for too long. Neutrals just wouldn’t bother and England supporters end up exasperated and in a foul mood for the rest of the day. The rest of the rugby world is looking on with a mixture of amusement, confusion and disbelief as they, like us, try to figure out quite what it is England are trying to do. It is rugby (apparently), but not as we know it or would wish to know it.

The performances of the players have palpably been not good enough and they need to take more personal responsibility for their actions. But let’s take it back to first causes. The job of a coaching team is threefold. They must produce a strategy; convey the key messages to the team in a clear and concise manner to which they will respond positively; and establish a squad mentality and environment which brings out the best in the players. The current England coaching team is failing on at least one, perhaps two and very possibly all three of these counts. And as long as they continue to do that then no matter who England put on the pitch, it will be a while before things improve.

by Stuart Peel

5 thoughts on “Coaches must take share of responsibility for England’s failures

  1. Good article.

    The coaches need to empower the players to make decisions on there own, even if it means going slightly off game plan for a moment.

    This reminds me of the 2003 world cup. Wales were two trys down in the first few minutes against the All Blacks. The Welsh had their second team on the pitch, and were looking at conceding a cricket score. Rumor has it that under the posts the players decided to f*** the ridged game plan the coaches had given them, and go out and enjoy themselves and throw the ball around. What resulted was free flowing rugby from the Welsh “second” team which nearly beat the AB if they hadn’t run out of steam with 15 minutes to go. The point was however that the players decided to play in a manner that they felt comfortable with and that single moment/game was the turning point for Welsh rugby.

    The English coaches need to let their players of the leash a bit. Maybe they will make mistakes, but surely not as many as they are currently making. England has quality players so why not have confidence in them and say to them “have a go, if you see something on” regardless if it’s to our game plan.

    Maybe the English players fear Johnson so much that they are just far too scared to try anything apart from what he has instructed them to do.

  2. Interesting. Have to admit I’m sat halfway on the fence on this issue. On one hand, I agree. Our players permanently look scared, confused and uncomfortable being out on the pitch, which does suggest that either they’re not happy with the game plan, the players have no confidence in the coaching team/game plan or that they is no game plan at all. If this is the case then god help us, because after that picture of Johnno during the Ireland game was posted, I don’t think anyone will stand up and say the truth.

    However on the other hand, part of me feels sorry for the coaching team. If it’s a case that there is a game plan and it’s the players not using it, then the coaching team are getting a lot of stick for the players disobedience – and lets face it, they’re continuous effort to break the laws of the game does suggest that this could very well be possible.

    Either way, things in the england camp are not (and have not been for a long time) working, so whether its the coaching team, player selection or game plan ( only joking. This last point definitely needs changing!)something needs to be done.

    If the coaching team/selectors are looking in, I would personally like to see the following team to plat Scotland.

    15. armitage. 14. strettle. 13. tait. 12. flutey. 11. simpson-daniel. 10. may. 9. ellis. 8. haskell. 7. lipman. 6. worsley. 5. kennedy. 4. shaw. 3. vickery. 2. mears. 1. sheridan. SUBS. 16. payne. 17. hartley. 18. croft. 19. care. 20. cipriani. 21. turner-hall. 22. banahan.

  3. That 15 isn’t too far from my ideal current England team. I’d say May is just one bold shout too many though and for once Cipriani might be a safer option than that so i’d swap them round! The rest of the backs look excellent and those forwards would probably be solid enough.

  4. Have you also noticed how I’ve have left our current captain out of the squad entirely! At the end of the day, the squad should be picked on performance, not status, and with that in mind, Borthwick would not even be in my team – let alone captain. This is also a huge problem for England – whether there’s a game plan or not and whether the players like it or not, we need a strong captain who can enforce it and motivate the players on the pitch and unfortunately Borthwick is not that captain.

    As for May. I know what you mean. Starting him may be a bit of a long shot, but he’s been playing well for years and has never been given any recognision (probably because he’s at Newcastle) and so in our troubled times of finding someone to fill Jonny’s boots, I think May could be a good option. Plus Cipriani has the ability to change a game, both in turns of game plan and performance, and so I think he would actually make a better sub than starter.

    Either way, we all know this won’t actually happen and Flood will be our starting 10 come sunday

  5. Great piece Stuart. It seems like so much of the press debate at the moment revolves around the “lack of discipline” cliche which is a superficial perspective that misses the underlying issues. I’m glad you’ve turned the focus back onto the coaching staff and I suspect the rugbyblog community is on the same wavelength.

    To my simple mind, the gameplan needs to be thoroughly thought through and communicated more clearly to the players. First it needs to make sense – a strategy that plays to our strengths. It needs to be clear at the team level and then each unit and each player need to know exactly how they should contribute. We have seen examples where players abandon the coaches’ plan (England in RWC 07 and and the Wales example Paynie cites above) and have been moderately successful. But that is not the answer. They have to be able to make decisions on the fly and adapt to opposition strategies, but they have to be coached into doing those things. The 2003 side had reached that level of competence, and I imagine they needed relatively little direction from the coaches, but that was several years into an SCW era where they were taught to observe, think and respond to what was happening. The current England side needs both a clear gameplan (including plan B, C & D) but also needs to coached into how to manage a game. In the year leading up to the 2003 win, there was a sense of inevitability that we would win. You just knew that whatever the score, we would not allow the clock to tick over to 80 minutes without us being in the lead. Now, however, once we fall behind it seems inevitable that we will lose. Like a team of American footballers that need a time out every five minutes to tell them what to do.

    The other big gap at the moment (and I think this falls into your third category of bringing out the best in players) is the lack of personal development input the players seem to be getting. Who knows how good players like Haskell could be with the right coaching. Clearly an exceptional talent, but he doesn’t seem to have improved in the last two years at international level. We now have a generation of players that have only played international level in an era of dysfunctional coaching.

    The writing’s on the wall…we need an overhaul of the coaching team and their methods. I am not optimistic we can achieve anything under Johnno, though. I don’t think the coaching team under SCW were much better individually, but his strong leadership made it work.

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