Followers of English team sports have learned something rather disturbing in the past few years. We are rubbish at winning.
I only recently discovered this because for the first 2 decades of my life our sports teams won virtually nothing of any global significance. But then in the space of 2 years, our rugby and test cricket teams reached the top of the world. We celebrated wildly but in both cases were left to lament an undignified crash back down to earth an alarmingly short time later.
When we win, we believe that we have reached our destination, that there is no more to achieve, that all is rosy and will continue to be so indefinitely. Inevitably, such an attitude is ruthlessly punished in the relentlessly competitive environment of international sport. When you are at the top, you are there to be shot at and at the slightest sniff of blood your rivals will hunt you down and devour you.
Mistake number one is believing that there is a destination at all. There is no such thing in team sport. Individual sports are different because each person has a finite career but an international sports team exists in perpetuity and there is an ongoing responsibility to keep evolving and improving it. There is always more to be achieved, teams and coaches must always be asking themselves, ‘what next?’. When you hit one target, another one looms ahead immediately and if you let your focus slip then you find that you have missed it.
Perhaps this is due to the fact that we historically have not tasted success that often. When we hit upon a winning formula such as the Woodward and Fletcher regimes in rugby and cricket respectively, we sit back and believe that we’ve got it, that all we need to do is maintain the status quo and success will breed long-term success. But nothing in life, still less in sport, actually works like that.
The old adage says that if you stand still you are moving backwards as your rivals catch you up and pass you. England’s juggernauts ground to a shuddering halt shortly after their successes and have spent the years since with the bonnet up rummaging around and identifying any number of problems but being seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Years down the line we remain stranded at the side of the road still awaiting that bump start which will get us moving again. Meanwhile our rivals are disappearing into the distance.
England’s travails have long been justified under the banner of rebuilding. But how long can this possibly take? Alex Ferguson starts rebuilding his United team and they have the championship a year later. More tellingly, he often comments that winning a trophy is the easy bit, retaining it is where the challenge really lies. No sooner has he won something than he asks ‘what next?’. And anyone who loses the hunger necessary to go on achieving is mercilessly cut loose.
On Saturday Conrad Smith nearly choked on his post-match protein shake when he heard about England’s ‘rebuilding’ excuse, saying that in New Zealand they never have that luxury as they are expected to produce a great team every year. Australia are fantastic at integrating new players into the established team and as a result are always competitive. No matter how good they are, they never believe that they have ‘made it’.
And there lies point. The way to produce a great team is not to set some intangible target in the future and work towards it. That merely serves to provide an excuse for short term failure. The only target should be to win the next game and let a winning environment breed more success. If you achieve this then you will never have any need to rebuild. Instead you can integrate new faces into a winning camp over time and they are made fully aware of the standards expected to live in that company.
Woodward and Fletcher both achieved this. Josh Lewsey was the last of the 2003 15 to secure his place and did so mere months before the tournament. He came in and took his chance, elevated to new standards by the people around him. Under Fletcher an unprecedented succession of players made immediate positive impacts on their introduction to the team. Since the teams reached their respective destinations, this has dried up. New players come into the team looking timid and play below the level they achieve every week for their clubs. This is a leading symptom of a squad lacking confidence and belief.
The position in which England now find themselves does need drastic measures, a sign of how far they have fallen. First among these must be striving to make the younger players feel like this is their team, that they deserve to be there and that they have licence to express themselves. A young captain would be a start. But they must also have it drummed into them that they have an enormous responsibility each and every time they pull on the shirt.
New Zealand talk of only borrowing the shirt and feeling the responsibility to those who have gone before and those who will come after. If their standards slip, they are letting down everyone in the country and that will not be tolerated. It breeds a fearsome desire and an undiluted loathing of losing. England need a dose of this in order to stop them from justifying every grisly defeat with drivel about the big picture. For now, just start winning. There is no destination beyond that. The future will take care of itself if you look after the present.
This would all be a whole lot easier from a position of strength but England have denied themselves that luxury. They will emerge from this trough, hopefully sooner rather than later. And when they do I sincerely hope that they never again sit back and say ‘job done’ without immediately following it with the question ‘what next?’.
By Stuart Peel