English rugby requires culture change to bring back success

Previously we discussed the Board-level focus which must be included in the post-World Cup review of England rugby. We expressed the hope that the people who made the decisions who have got us in to this mess must be held to account. This week we turn the on-field side of things. It was there after all that the World Cup failure centred.

Some of the issues highlighted could be addressed by the review(s) while others are deep-rooted cultural changes required if England are to succeed at the top level.

The Culture

For eight years we have heard that England are rebuilding or in transition, that their best years are ahead. Have you ever head that from New Zealand or South Africa? They are the teams against whom England should be benchmarking themselves. It is never acceptable to take a field in those shirts with the attitude that you have a ready made excuse if you lose, namely that you are only concerned with the future. That has been the rhetoric from England for years. Even now they have suffered a humiliating World Cup we are assured that the future is bright.

This is no longer acceptable. The attitude in England rugby must be that we should regularly challenge for the number one spot and, even in lulls, never be outside the top four or five. All decisions should be made from that initial standpoint.

The Coaches

As was suggested in the first section of the review, never again can a coach be appointed and not given full rein to pick his own coaches. This first happened when John Wells and Mike Ford were foisted on to Brian Ashton and they were retained under Martin Johnson by a Board unable to admit to their own mistakes. Johnson should have been more ruthless but he should never have been put in the position in the first place.

If Johnson is removed, whoever is appointed must allowed to bring in whoever he wants. There cannot be the sort of fudge which has produced the current situation or any ambiguity regarding who is ultimately responsible for the failure or otherwise of the team. Once again this leads back to having the right people at the top making these decisions and re-emphasises the need for Cotton to focus at Board level.

This has been a coaching team who have looked out of their depth. There never seemed to be a plan and if they had a plan their message got completely lost somewhere. Therefore they are short of either rugby vision or of communication skills, both of which are fundamental to any coach at any level. That some of them have been there for five years is a tacit acceptance of mediocrity from those powerful enough to do anything about it.

The Clubs

Obviously the players have to take responsibility for their own actions off the pitch and performances on it. They are grown adults after all. But any review such as this must focus on the institutions which produce the players. It would appear from the outside as though the Academy system is failing on two levels.

Standard of skills – the stereotype is that England produce gym monkeys rather than skilled performers. On the evidence of the World Cup there is something in that. England’s players looked big but slow, strong but not dynamic. The level of basic skills was at times woeful, the discipline and ability to respond to unfolding events non-existent. What are these players doing at these Academies who pluck them from playing regular club and school rugby at such a young age?

Standard of individuals produced – this is relevant both in terms of having the required discipline and self-control and in terms of leadership qualities. On the field we are producing robots who can’t think on the hoof, off it people who make poor decisions. There was a lack of leaders in the English squad, no matter how hard the coaches may protest.

It is also noticeable that when you watch DVDs such as Living with the Lions in 1997 you feel like you are watching men go about their business. Many of the England squad seem and behave like kids despite being the same age. Academies must take responsibility in producing more rounded characters. Rugby is a game played best by people with vision, perspective and an ability to think for themselves, not by the guys who can lift twice their bodyweight.

The Players

All the above is not meant to read like a list of excuses for the players. Ultimately it is they who must take responsibility. It may be the case that those above them have not placed the best set of tools at their disposal or prioritised them over self-interest. But there are too few players who show many of the qualities demonstrated by their rivals. The likes of James O’Connor, David Pocock, Israel Dagg, Sam Warburton and Rhys Priestland have come into international rugby and immediately taken influential roles and shown that they belong. England’s players often come in and look satisfied that they have made it this far. This reflects both on and off the field.

Ultimately the review must focus on the system which produces the players. Get the means right and the ends will take care of themselves. This World Cup has been a wake up call for English rugby. Now everyone throughout the system must pull together to make sure this represents rock bottom.

by Stuart Peel

14 thoughts on “English rugby requires culture change to bring back success

  1. I think attitude is a big problem in the English camp. Whether it’s what mike tindall may or may not have done in a pub, Wilkinson’s moaning about balls or ashtons foolish comments in a tv interview about all he does is stand on the wing and wait for the ball. (i know this was supposed to be a joke but was stupid none the less.) I think this falls down to a problem of team leadershop. Lewis moody is not a good captain. The team look like they’re running around doing there own thing. Captaincy means leading off the pitch as well as on. Take Wales for example, there has been no golf buggy incidents (not even from Andy Powell) which means they’ve been able to focus better on the pitch. I think this is down to warburtons strong leadership and example.

  2. If you think about it Wells, Ford & Callard were foisted on Robinson in his final year too. Since 2006 our forwards have been ponderous and slow at the breakdown, with dynamic players ignored in favour of “solid” types like Borethick, Deacon, Payne, Easter, etc. Our defence has been poor too. Record losses to all the tri nations and Ireland! People always point to the lack of tries conceded as evidence of a good defense, but conceding penalties to prevent tries or stop attacks is not a good defence. And as for Callard the fact they have brought Alfred back says it all. We are the richest Union we should have the best coaches and I think we need to look beyond the premiership, hardly a beacon for dynamic rugby. Can’t believe people are mentioning Dean Ryan or Mallinder as potential candidates. These guys have won nothing at club level we should be setting the bar higher.

  3. Some great issues raised here especially the point that England seem to be in constant transition mode and you feel that it will continue if changes are not made until the next World Cup.

    Academies are producing some top notch players and as a Harlequins fan, seeing the progression of Clegg, Lowe, Marler et al has been great. But it comes down to selection, which remains one dimensional.

    Additionally, I don’t feel England go in without a plan, I just think there is no backup when it all (inevitably) goes t*ts up. The best coaches let players play the game in front of them and I feel Johnson is too regimented to allow anyone to do that. There was a short part on the BBC website World Cup round up earlier on today about how players are now similar in build and they outlined Sonny Bill Williams as the type of “Robo-Player” in todays game. I think they could have made a better comparison with most of the English team. At least SBW has flair.

    1. I don’t think SBW is the cleverest player in the World either – How long was he on the pitch ine the semi?!! He is physically very gifted, but can’t get into the team in front of Conrad Smith, who is just a smart player who reads the game well, does the nuts and bolts well and maximises his potential while not being the biggest, fastest, flashiest player. If that’s what NZ value, maybe we should be doing that as well!

      1. I never claimed SBW was, nor that he is any better than Smith. Just said that he does add something to the game that all centres in the England World Cup squad (bar Tuilagi) didn’t. Whilst SBW has been over-hyped, he is still a gifted player.

        1. Sorry, not sure my reply was clear, I was agreeing with you and adding on a bit about rugby intelligence. He’d walk into the England team!

  4. Good blog. Brings together a number of the comments that have been flying around this blog for a while. What will be done about it though is another matter – and how many years before the results start feeding through the system into the England team?

  5. Personally I think a lot of the problem, was that most of the squad which did go to this World Cup, were already expecting to be in the squad. There seems to be a lack of fear over losing their place in the squad. This again comes down to the coaches, and the manager. I suspect MJ selects his squad based on what he’s told by the coaches.
    Graham Henry and Warren Gatland have been fearless to try new talent when they’ve had injury problems. North only came into the Welsh team when several other players were injured. Now you can’t see the team lining up without him. Henry could easily have played Stephen Donald (a proven fly half at top flight), but instead he went with Slade, and then Cruden. Could anyone see England putting Farrell or Clegg in if Flood or Wilko had got injured?
    There needs to be fresh blood in a lot of positions in the England team. Hopefully now the new laws are in place regarding players at foreign clubs, we will see a few fresh faces in the squad. Shame we haven’t heard of any retirements yet though.

    1. I agree with you Dazza Gatland has done it well for wales bringing in both North, Preistland and Faletau who have all proved more than capable of playing international rugby, unlike MJ and England who seem to be selecting the same old players.

  6. England should pick more players that don’t get picked a lot. It seems that there has been a core of players over the last few years who have almost been guaranteed an England place and haven’t really seemed bothered if they win or lose as long as they make the squad they are happy. Give more players like charlie sharples, Tom Wood etc the chance to play. They would go out and play with a point to prove forcing them to play better.

  7. SBW is competing with Nonu, not smith, just by the way. But you’re totally right – Smith is an incredible smart player – the perfect complement to Nonu who is big, fast, strong etc etc.

    I agree – let’s start investing in youth. Oh and bring back Cips.

    1. Can’t see Cipriani being much of a help. His off field behaviour this year has been a disgrace and he had the worst defensive record in the super xv.

      The points Stu raised are fundamental. Each of the major SH rugby nations has its own administrative burdens: South Africa has the excessive govt intervention, the ARU has a mash of businessmen, ex players and dilettantes, who seem to be slaves to pay tv concerns at the expense of grass roots growth (the NSW RU doesn’t help), NZ has the famous North/South divide. Despite these issues, each of these nations seems to do enough to put the rugby first. I don’t know if the ERFU could claim the same thing…

  8. I had attended the insiderunning academy courses and i think the kiwis had done such a great study on how to maximize their player’s performance.

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