How should we solve England’s problems?

There’s always a debate about whether teams should focus on winning the next game with no eye on the future, or whether they should build a team to target the Rugby World Cup every four years.

This debate is particularly pertinent for England at the moment, given that Martin Johnson’s side must surely be at rock bottom in terms of performance, and they have slipped out of the top four in the IRB World Rankings – which means that they won’t be among the top four seeds at the World Cup.

That means they really will have to be the best side in the world to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, so that they can beat every team that stands in their way even in the group stages.

After this weekend’s New Zealand game, England have 2 and a half years to become world beaters once again. Ideally, they’d need a Grand Slam Six Nations campaign going into the World Cup, so they would seek to be peaking at the beginning of 2011. So with the Lions Tour next summer, there are just three meaningful series of matches before the Six Nations in World Cup year, so they really need to start getting it right.

Everyone is saying Johnno needs time, but does that mean we just plod along for another six months before deciding that the setup is still not right and sacking the seemingly incompetent coaches? Or do we take action now, change the coaching setup in time for the new year, conduct a proper review (not a Rob Andrew review) of the entire structure of the game from the grass-roots through the academies up to the elite squad?

Do we go on a recruiting drive around the Pacific Islands with some wads of RFU cash? Would central contracts for elite players make a difference? How about moving to a region-based club structure? Wales has won 2 Grand Slams in 4 years don’t forget…

Or is it just a case of tweaking a few things here and there, fine tuning the best players so that it all comes together on matchday?

Last weekend’s drubbing by the Springboks was embarrassing. The Southern Hemisphere teams have been outstanding and we should take nothing away from them, but something surely needs to change to close the gap so that we can mount a credible challenge in 2011.

Readers of The Rugby Blog invariably choose the right options (‘Borthwick should not be captain’, ‘Noon isn’t good enough’, ‘Farrell really shouldn’t be playing fly-half’ etc), so now is your chance to post your views about what should happen after this disastrous autumn series.

The Rugby Paper will be featuring a selection of comments from here in this week’s newspaper, so please let us know what you think and hopefully the RFU blazers will take the ideas on board.

8 thoughts on “How should we solve England’s problems?

  1. An interesting topic.

    I believe that the strength of the southern hemisphere teams, and, indeed, the advantage that the Celtic Nations have over England is their club structure.

    In SA and NZ the provincial franchises e.g the Stormers, Bulls, the Crusaders, the Chiefs etc compete in the Super 14, against simlar provinces from NZ, SA and Aus. The players that play in these Super 14 squads are drafted up from regional teams contained within each province and always have an allegiance to their province (e.g. for cup games). As a result, only the best players from each regional team get anywhere near the Super 14 squads. However, the tier down from the Super 14 still competes regularly in league and cup competition, with a good season promising a leap up to the big time.

    This system is replicated, allbeit somewhat less successfully in Ireland and Wales with players in each province e.g. the Ospreys, Ulster, Munster etc having allegiances with a local regional team.

    This system prompts constant pressure from the level below, with each regional team (in the SH at least!) being of a similar standard to our GP teams. Let’s take an example. Hosea Gear, the younger brother of Rico Gear has just made his debut in the All Blacks team. Before that (since 2004), he was playing good rugby for his Super province, the Hurricanes. However, from 2002, he was playing for the Hurricanes’ regional club, Wellington.

    This structure is not present in the GP, with more of a Premiership football approach adopted. This is even reflected with the National Leagues – when was the last time that the relegated Premiership side wasn’t the team to get promoted from National League One?

    Until there is consistent, and worthwhile pressure from the teams below the GP, there isn’t going to be a strong national side.

  2. This type of question is best handled in person, in pub, and over several beers, but here is my synopsis.

    Nurturing talent is a problem for England. I believe I read somewhere once that more people play rugby union in the UK than anywhere else in the world. Probably not as many per capita than say NZ, but there should be a bigger pool to choose from. So why is it that we consistently fail to convert that into a constant stream of talent feeding into international level? From time to time we see exciting young players emerging, and all get excited about how good England is going to be in a few years. But rarely do we see those players become truly world class. SCW’s era saw several players hit those peaks (probably 8 players of the 2003 team would have been an automatic selection in any national team in the world). But most of them only got there in the last year or two of their careers.

    There are many contributory factors to this. Too many games, too many foreign players in many positions (perhaps a symptom rather than a cause), lack of quality coaching at club and academy level, and lack of development focus at the England junior and elite player level.

    Of course, the management structure for the elite squad is also critical, and it is clearly not working very well so far for Johnno. With this current crop of players, a strong set up might claim a win from one of the three internationals this autumn, but would never win a world cup.

  3. I wouldn’t resort to franchises but I think that the club academy system needs a long look. This is the first generation of fully pro rugby players (many of the 2003 team began as amateurs) and rather than a group of players coming from university who have learned to think on their feet and have a proper sense of perspective about the game, and most importantly have grown up playing it for fun, we have lots of young players in fantastic shape who eat all the right things and shift an awful lot of weight. But give them a slight overlap against an aggressive defence and they have no idea. And I don’t sense that they get the same joy out of the game as their predecessors.

    At a younger age there needs to be more focus on the confrontational parts of the game. In SA and NZ it is part of the culture – they venerate their props as we venerate our 10s. Rugby is not a game where you can be mollycoddled and I think that at a younger age players need to spend less time looking at white boards, studying strategy and eating houmos and more time smashing each other and trying to put their skills into practice under pressure.

  4. Completely agree Stuart. Remember the days when the England team included players who earned their living in the building trade (eg Mike Teague IIRC), on the farm (Peter Winterbottom, at least in his youth) or in the police force (would you have argued with Ackford or Deano telling you to drink up and clear out?). We can only speculate, but I would guess that the current crop would otherwise have worked in advertising, media, fashion design or party planning.

  5. So what do we actually do about this? All the things said here have just highlighted problems rather than solutions.

    I reckon we need to look at the academy system. That is the vehicle to bring promising talented young players through to full internationals, and where the talent needs to be nurtured. The Australians seem to do sporting academies rather well so can we learn from them?

  6. I think John’s right, the NZ structure is near perfect. It has a clear hierarchical system and a clear path to the All Blacks team and players know where they stand at any time. However, we need to face up to the fact that it’ll never happen here and find the best solution to fit our game. Thanks to the dithering RFU letting the clubs take control when the game went professional, the clubs are holding all the aces and probably always will do. Annoying, but true.

    The only thing that will break their stranglehold is for the RFU to start giving the clubs the cash they want (and deserve, having nurtured players in the first place), which is what the new Elite playing squad now does. As much as I hated all the “it’ll be alright we just need a bit of time” excuses that were made for Robinson and then Ashton, there is some real truth in this now. Quite a few things have been put in place (but not yet had time to reap benefits) such as the Elite squad, the limit on games played, the cash payments to the clubs of England players etc that will help us in the long term. We won’t see the full benefits for years though.

    I can’t say I know the workings of the RFU Academy well enough to comment on how good a job it’s doing, but we do need to nurture talent young and get them playing high intensity rugby, but not too much of it.

    Probably the toughest problem to crack will be the number of foreign players in the GP. Some of them are a credit to the league, others are just journeymen and we would benefit from a limit on overseas players. The clubs would probably take some persuading though – some of the Pacific Islanders are probably pretty cheap labour for them and a limit on foreigners could push the wage bill up.

    We still need a better backroom team at the top level too. In the last few years we’ve cut a lot of specialist coaches when the deadwood has in fact been at the top. Now we look less fit than the opposition (but no sign of Dave Reddin) and with the ELVs and all that in-field kicking, what about Alred?

    The above is a bit of a random selection of ideas, but that’s the nature of our game. The neat pyramid system enjoyed by NZ is a pipedream for us. To quote the one rare bit of sense spoken by Rob Andrew recently, we need an English solution for the English game.

  7. Martin Johnson lifted a world cup. Does that make him a good coach? I think the english approach is completely wrong at the minute. We’re too focused on size, strength and idiotic play. Turning skilled players down because they are too small etc. Look at Wales, France. Doing better than we are at the moment. Watching the England team run into brick walls was killing me, no flow, no creativity, just smash middle of park up. It would be one thing if that approach worked, it doesnt.

  8. An example of the academy system – a lad was sent on loan to my club from Saracens a couple of years ago to get some game time at a decent level before the U21 6 Nations. He arrived in early December. I asked him when he last played a game and the answer was 2 months ago. He had played 5 matches all season but had been training all week every week since the start of July – that’s 5 months, and he had not been injured for any of that time. This was 4 years ago so it may have improved but top players are blooded in the heat of battle on the pitch and they therefore need to play week in week out.

    The structure of our season is also an issue. In the Southern Hemisphere, they play their top regional competition over consecutive weeks, then some players go to their domestic clubs and some into the international set up where they stay for the next 2-3 months. Our players must spend half the tme wondering if they’re coming or going, playing different competitions every week, disappearing off with England, back to the clubs, then 6 Nations. I still think that our clubs are the way forward but how about having the EDF Energy group games to coincide with the internationals. Nobody cares about them anyway and it enables players to build up form over a continuous run of Premiership games rather than being rested every other week or playing in a competition they don’t give two hoots about.

    In the short term, I think the thing to do now is to empower the young players and make it their team. I don’t mean get rid of all the older players but give the captaincy to someone like Haskell. Some of them look a little overawed by international rugby at the moment and if you make one of them skipper they all feel like they have a legitimate stake in the team. It worked with Carling, it worked with Dallaglio. I think it would help to give the set up almost more of a club feel in which the players are more comfortable.

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