Is English rugby ‘healthier’ than in 2003?


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)

21 thoughts on “Is English rugby ‘healthier’ than in 2003?

  1. Good article. I can’t remember any other time where there was so much competition for England shirts, probably only Dan Cole and Robshaw that aren’t being pushed for their place. In that respect I don’t think we’ve ever had it so good. It seems to me that clubs with excellent academy systems, such as Quins, Chiefs and Wasps, can take more credit for the pipeline of young English talent than the RFU though.

    We had a 10 year intellectual void in the coaching leadership department, going from a team that were setting new standards in how to prepare off the field and play on it to a team that never seemed to look beyond next weeks game. Thankfully this seems to have been rectified.

    Ritchie seems to talk a lot of sense, so the RFU may have found some improved leadership. A deal on player access and recruiting Lancaster just doesn’t seem enough from Andrew though. At the time I thought it was a good appointment, but he just seems to have got his feet under the table taken his large salary with very little personal responsibility and accountability. I was very pleased with the announcement that Lancaster will take responsibility for the elite player development as well, it was difficult to see what Andrew as actually contributing to this.

  2. Wow 10 years since England won The World Cup, 10 years! Now that remains one of my proudest moments as an Englishman but in the cold light of day it has been 10 years walking in the relative wilderness. Now you cannot knock the greatness that the team achieved under Sir Clive but there was one thing that bothered this was the hangover or lack of exit strategy as it were suffered in the aftermath of 2003.

    We built a team to win the World Cup but there was no legacy to carry it on, alot of the team retired and nobody could match Sir Clive in the aftermath.

    If this England team is to do well and stand a chance of winning the next World Cup we need an exit strategy, yes build a team to win but build a team to continue on the foundations laid.

    I think Stuart Lancaster was the right choice in coach but if England achieve what they are capable of and can keep bringing in the new talent times ahead do look really good.

  3. We replaced SCW with a number of coaches who could not see past the next game. Although I believe Johnson deserves more credit thame he gets he was frustratingly conservative and most disappointingly lost his nerve when it mattered most. Finally we have a coach who has a strategy but does not accept failure purely because he is developing a side. And I was not a Lancaster supporter when he was appointed. He has won me over.

    1. My opinion on the managers post SCW

      Andy Robinson persistently picking Tindall + Noon together… enough said.

      Brian Ashton Made a few mistakes but still got us to number 2 in the 6N and 2nd at a WC. I think he suffered from some of the politics of the RFU.

      Johnson… I was actually quite happy with the way he was going until (as you said) he seemed to loose the bottle right when it mattered. Wilkinson back in for the WC after Flood had played so well in the 6N! Stevens at loosehead for the France game when Corbisiero was ready to go having beaten the same French front row earlier that year in the 6N. Shouldn’t have come straight into rugby at the top like that. Shame hes not just managing some mid level prem team to learn a bit. I’m worried this may have ruined his managing potential for life.

  4. I honestly believe that Ian Ritchie has had a massive influence in the turn around of English rugby following the debacle of the World Cup. He has brought in proven commercial and industry leading nouse to a role that had previously been reserved for the next memeber of the old boys club. He has streamlined the RFU, led to record breaking turn-over, signed economically savvy deals and, most importantly, had the guts and belief to stick with an inexperienced rooky coach who had a dream and a plan of how to get there. Very impressed with him because he keeps it simple – let him worry about the commerce and let the coaching set-up worry about the team! As Matt said as well – he does seem to talk pure sense which is a welcome change to many of his predecessors.

    1. Completely agree with this, the RFU has finally got someone at the top of the structure who isn’t an old boy and has come from outside the usual circles.
      It’s also so refreshing to hear an England coach not just go from match to match (the old line of “lots of positives” used to drive me crazy), but have a plan and be executing it whilst still demanding wins as Benjit points out.

  5. So is it true?

    Three games in a row and you are already targeting the World Cup?

    As an All Blacks fan I know the dangers of that way of thinking.

    Your team is playing good rugby at the moment, but much more than that is needed to win a World Cup.

    If I am not mistaken, in 2012 you lost 4 drew 1 and won 1 against the top 3. Unless that is dramatically changed you will not be nowhere nearer towards winning the Cup.


    1. Yes but we are still a team in infancy needing time to gel and mould as a unit.

      Why not set a target of the 2015 World Cup as it is in our backyard and we have around 2 more years until the tournament, what is the point of not targetting a world Cup win as it is a realistic aim?

      Forget about the results in 2012 which you quote, you are right but they were tight games which we lost and then we pounded New Zealand all this in Stuart Lancasters first year really.

      If England can iron out silly mistakes then those tight losses can be narrow wins.

      1. Sure. Whenever a team plays with no mistakes they win. My team put up 4 tries against the Boks in Soweto last year in what was their best showing of 2012… but two months after that they lost to England 9 years after the previous loss with a few unusual errors by standout players.

        If indeed England is a team in infancy, then it’s obviously too early to say they are better than the best team England has had.

        Of course, I agree setting sights on the World Cup is a healthy thing, but I would think putting too much thinking in World Cups has been the downfall of the All Blacks in the past and only when they realized they needed a week-by-week approach they were able to win it for a second time.

        1. Um I never said this side were better than the one in 2003, far from it, there is a long way to go before that comparison is made my only crticism of that side was there was no exit strategy after winning The World Cup.

    2. Absolutely agree with everything you say but that’s not the point of the article. Indeed the article never claims England will or even might win the World Cup. It is talking about the system which is better than it was back then.

  6. I think England need to be moving upwards in the rankings before you could even begin to compare them to the 2003 side. In 2002 England cleaned the board at home against SA, NZ and Aus before going away to beat NZ and Aus with a 6N grandslam in the middle. England were 1st in the rankings (which had only just come into existence).

    In the last year England have beaten NZ in England, lost to SA and Aus, lost to Wales in England (2nd place 6N) and lost a series 2-0 to SA in SA (with a draw). They’ve just moved up to fourth in the rankings.

    Would I compare this England side to 2003? No. They’re doing alright, looking confident and keeping their feet on the ground, which is a positive, but they’re so far from the England side in 2003 it’s not even worth considering.

    In terms of the structure and politics going on in the RFU, I think there are so many layers, so many bureaucrats pulling everything in so many different directions that it’s still, relatively speaking, much more of a mess with much more waste than it was 10 years ago. They “streamlined” Rob Andrew’s job but failed to streamline so much more that needed doing.

    1. Again, he’s not comparing tyhe 2 sides, he’s comparing the systems, think you’ve misread this. Nobody is claiming this side is as good as 2003.

      1. The side is a result of the systems though. If the side isn’t as successful as it should be, there are problems higher up. Facilities are great now relatively speaking, but the RFU isn’t translating it’s money into results in performance and development.

        The problem with assessing the RFU and England right now comes with the fact that there has been such a mess going on over the last year or so with people resigning, being sacked, a massive failing in finding a top class proven coach, suppressed report findings, in fighting and bloating. The RFU has had no time to reflect properly on the issues, respond to and fix the issues and start showing those results through performance. When the England team start moving up the rankings and playing more consistently I’ll say that England are as healthy as they were in 2003.

  7. It’s very early days, too early for comparison to the finished product that was the 2003 team. But the important thing is that we are on course. SL and his team are doing an excellent job, and the RFU will hopefully just give him the support he needs to continue this progress. But already the turnaround is quite remarkable. We have players performing more in line with their potential, new players being given an opportunity and a fantastic team culture developing – determined, smart and always humble.

  8. Notice how none of us are complaining about Rob Andrew any more! I’m sure he has had nothing to do with the turnaround. I still think he’s a complete arse and of no benefit to the England Rugby team, but whatever, I can forget that he’s paid so much to be irrelevant when the team is doing well.

  9. Credit where it’s due for Rob Andrew. He was important in making the elite squad system work with Premiership Rugby and that is one thing I have to say has improved the way that England rugby shapes up now. I feel the issue was less him and more his job forming another level of bureaucracy and taking power away from the coaches.

    1. Exactly, well done for putting the framework in place (his job). It may not be perfect but it is far better than having nothing and far better than the current French situation. However what is he doing now? What is the definition of success if he does his job well? Now he no longer has any responsibility, as I understand it, for elite player development he seems a bit of a 5th wheel.

      1. He retains a role in player development, so he’s involved with the England Saxons, age levels and still in communication with clubs etc. while developing frameworks and guidelines for clubs to help them develop the next generation. The only thing that was really taken away from him was the filter between England head coach and top brass at the RFU.

        1. Are you sure? My reading of the announcement on the back of the Geech review was all age groups and saxons were to be under lancaster, with a new role of international player development to be recruited under lancaster. I think the sports science aspects, found to be in the dark ages by the review, are also now under Lancaster as well. I can’t claim to have spent any time looking at org charts or reading new job descriptions so please correct me if I’ve got it wrong.

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