A year or two ago it occurred to me that England’s winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003 might condemn them to never winning it again in the same manner that the football side’s win in 1966 appears to have done.
In the RWC tournaments before 2003, England would go in with little real prospect of winning but being happy to see how far they could get before being undone by one of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses. But 2003 was different: England went into that competition probably being the best side, very little weakness in any given position, and the team that the others wanted to avoid. When they encountered South Africa in the group stages, England were favourites and duly obliged by winning 25-6. Only Australia in the final got anywhere near them, with their closest game up to that point being their 28-17 defeat of Wales.
In the summer of 2003, a few months before the rugby world cup, England toured Australia and New Zealand where they beat both of them in full tests. Any side that can pull off successive wins over Australia and New Zealand is special, and one that can do it away from home very special indeed. In 2000, England had drawn a two-test away series in South Africa, so all three Southern Hemisphere teams had succumbed at home to the England of that era. In the home “Autumn” internationals, England beat Australia and South Africa in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and New Zealand in 2002 (for some reason they didn’t play NZ in 2000 and 2001). In other words, England in the 2000 RWC were an exceptional side who were hitting their peak after a sustained run which saw them see off their main rivals multiple times in the preceding years. The team featured exceptional players and were coached by a chap who knew what he was doing. This is why I, as a Wales fan who generally doesn’t enjoy England’s success on the rugby pitch, thought they thoroughly deserved that 2003 win. Few will contend they were not the best side in the competition, in a year when other sides were not especially weak either.
The problem is, English fans quickly slipped into a mentality that because they have won it before then they can win it again. Winning rugby world cups is not like rolling dice, it is not down to chance and probability where once an impossibility is ruled out then a recurrence can be expected. Any team can win a major sports trophy if the stars align for them – look at Greece in the UEFA Euro 2004 championships who came out of nowhere to win the whole thing – but normally the sides who are in the running for overall victory have players and a team which, above everything else, simply perform well. I have spent years watching English football fans believing – genuinely – that they have a good chance of winning a major trophy with a team that consists of mediocre players who don’t play very well together. And now England rugby fans seem to have gone the same way: any criticism of England and how they play gets met with the same curious mix of nationalistic aggression and childlike optimism, which inevitably turns to disbelief and disappointment when they crash out.
What they should have been doing is listening to what the other teams think. Were South Africa, New Zealand, or Australia looking nervously at England, hoping to avoid them in the draw? Nope. Australia went into the game reasonably confident they could beat England on their own ground. They certainly weren’t afraid, and nor will they be much concerned about Wales when they play on Saturday. Wales go into world cups hoping our team clicks enough to pull off an upset and get as far as we can, which we did very well in 2011. We probably realise that it would take a Greece-style upset for us to win the rugby world cup, but England – with its financial might and far larger resource pool – should be aiming to produce a team that can contend, as they did in 2003, without lucky draws and shock upsets. Instead they’ve opted for the worst of both worlds: unrealistic expectations of getting to the semis or final without making the necessary tough decisions (a foreign coach, perhaps?) to ensure they are genuine contenders.
Jeez, Lancaster turned up to this world cup not even knowing what his best XV is. No team is going to win much unless the coach knows who his best players are in each position and, assuming everyone is fit, who will run out on match day. The decision to include Sam Burgess in the squad, let alone the starting team, is looking more ridiculous by the day. No doubt Lancaster was under huge pressure from the English RFU to promote this brilliant rugby league player who, for reasons known only to themselves, they prised from the Rabbitohs (where he was happy playing with his three brothers) and subsidised his move to Bath to play a different sport. True, it worked for Jason Robinson: but it didn’t work for Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, and Iestyn Harris. Serious teams competing in the rugby world cup do not include league-converts who have done nothing to prove themselves in the fifteen-man game. What next for Sam Burgess, I wonder?
England have done themselves no favours at all by hyping Chris Robshaw for all he’s worth. In the 2013 Six Nations, English commentator Brian Moore was opining in the press that Robshaw should be given the captaincy for the Lions tour to Australia that autumn, citing his Man of the Match performances as support for this view. What he neglected to remind everyone is that it was Brian Moore himself, working for the BBC, who had bestowed these Man of the Match awards on Robshaw. As it happened, England were thrashed by Wales in the final game of the Six Nations and Robshaw never even made the Lions squad. Warren Gatland’s decision to omit him appeared to pay off as his side came home victorious having won the series 2-1.
Another supposed shoo-in for the Lions was Owen Farrell, who appeared to be selected for England largely on the basis that he is a good-looking chap and a perfect replacement for Johnny Wilkinson as the “housewives’ favourite”. Oh, and his Dad just happens to be one of the coaches. True, Farrell can kick well – but so could Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Sexton, so he was surplus to requirements in the Lions starting XV. Fast-forward to last Saturday night and his selection in the England starting XV – and his bizarre shift out to the wing – was looking more like a moment of madness than an inspired choice by Stuart Lancaster. As with Robshaw, somebody should have seen this coming a lot sooner and done something about it.
There’s too much sentimentality holding back English rugby. Wales need it, because we don’t have the throughput of players, so babbling on about pride and passion is a handy addition to the genuine skills of the likes of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones (although you rarely hear any sentimentality from Gatland himself). It is hard to see how Wales could do much more than play their skins out and hope they can pull off an upset – as they did against England the weekend previously – which will see them through to the next round. Rinse and repeat as the competition progresses and the opposition get tougher and more antipodean. But England have the population, youth structure, and financial resources to be able to challenge for a world cup without needing an easy pool, a friendly ref, or a marginal call from the TMO. They don’t need Victoria Crosses on their shirts, and to impose off-field standards of conduct reminiscent of a 1920s convent (one of the most effective players for Australia was, as usual, Kurtley Beale, who has been cast into the wilderness more times than I can remember for various infractions, only to return each time somebody sensible decided they actually needed somebody who is very skillful and lightning fast). Johnny Wilkinson was a nice bloke, but also happened to be a great player. David Campese was a complete arsehole even by Australian standards, but also happened to be a great player. See the pattern here?
I can’t help thinking that, as with so much in England and corporate life in general (and, having seen the ECB’s treatment of Kevin Pietersen I don’t believe national sporting organisations are much different from your average big company these days), dissent has been frowned upon, conformity and obedience rewarded, and any maverick player who might have provided the spark of creativity kept well away from a white jumper. Beale would walk into the England team on playing ability, but would they have picked him anyway? Or worried too much about the squeaky clean image being tarnished and the corporate sponsors upset?
England need a new coach, preferably a mercenary foreign one who isn’t interested in sentimentality and will pick the best fifteen Englishmen who currently play the game, and to hell with the rest. Otherwise in 2033 we’ll be subject to another round of “30 years of hurt” and increasingly desperate cries of “but this was going to be our year”. Over to you, RFU.
(Incidentally, England’s reaching the RWC final in 2007 probably did them as much damage insofar as expectations go: a very average team managed to make the game so interminably dull followed by last-minute penalty for a minor infringement that they somehow got to the final, and every English fan thought this was not only deserved, but a feat up there with the 2003 victory. It wasn’t, and was never going to be – foot in touch or not.)