In the 10 years that have passed since England lifted the Webb Ellis cup, criticising that World Cup-winning team has become a crime tantamount to heresy. They remain the only Northern Hemisphere side to have won the World Cup and their achievement is still justifiably celebrated up and down the country.
The intermittent years since then have been relatively sparse in terms of success, and we often find ourselves longing for those days to return, but it is easy to question the wisdom of those who long for what, in many peoples’ opinion, would be a significant backward step for English rugby. To sacrifice the multitude of improvements that we have witnessed in English rugby for another ‘golden generation’, who would merely paper over the cracks in the professional game, would be unwise.
Sir Clive Woodward, who built, sculpted and guided the England side to victory in Sydney ten years ago, resigned as England coach the following year, citing the politics of English rugby as one of the main reasons behind his decision.
It would be naive to think that politics are no longer present in the hierarchy of the Rugby Football Union (RFU), but the structure has certainly been adjusted to allow for coach Stuart Lancaster to concentrate on performing his job to the best of his abilities. The introduction of Rob Andrew, originally as ‘Elite Rugby Director’, and more recently as ‘Rugby Operations Director’, has been the most significant step in this restructuring of the RFU.
Whilst Andrew has not been immune to criticism during his tenure with the RFU, his contribution to the eight year deal struck between Premier Rugby and the RFU deserves credit. The agreement, which guarantees preparation time for the Elite Player Squads (which consist of 32 players for the Senior, Saxons and Under-20’s squads), whilst compensating Premiership clubs for the players they contribute to these squads, is vital to the long-term success of English rugby.
Had this structure and agreement been in place when Woodward was still coach, it is difficult to see him leaving a job which still had so much to offer. The England team may have been ageing, with Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Will Greenwood and Jason Leonard all subsequently retiring, but there was plenty of young talent to build around. The injury crises which plagued England in the following years would have been impossible to foresee, and Woodward would have been able to build around the talents of Phil Vickery, Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen, with a leadership group of Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill.
Nevertheless, Woodward did leave, and now, four coaches later, Lancaster is the man at the tiller, guiding England towards their home World Cup in 2015. Improvements to both the England Saxons and Under-20’s squads in recent years have already borne fruit for Lancaster. Gems such as Owen Farrell and Joe Launchbury have been promoted from both squads during his tenure, and both squads now feel like a conveyor belt for talent destined to represent the senior side, rather than a consolation prize for players, as they did back in 2003.
Of course, this is partly due to the strength of the senior squad in 2003, but since then improvements have been made, and the amount of young, talented players being targeted by the Saxons seems to be at an all-time high. The current squad is littered with players who will undoubtedly go on to make a considerable impact with the senior squad, such as Billy Vunipola, Matt Kvesic, Christian Wade and Elliot Daly to name but a few.
Will England win the World Cup in 2015? It’s far too early to tell. Will this crop of England stars rise to the vaunted heights of 2003’s ‘golden generation’? Again, too early to tell, but the potential is certainly there.
However, are the foundations in place for success? And, just as importantly, are the mechanisms in place, unlike 2003, to maintain this success? The answer is yes. This current crop of England players may never go on to replicate the success the 2003 squad had, but most people would trade a ‘golden generation’ of players for a system which looks to build continued and sustainable success every day of the week.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)