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.
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.
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.
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.
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