What next for England rugby?

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.)

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14 thoughts on “What next for England rugby?

  1. Yep, fair enough.

    30 caps a player in a World Cup squad. That’s the magic number.

    If your team isn’t close to that number, they aren’t contenders.

  2. in 2007, the team overrode the coaches.
    Catt and Dallaglio et al. Against S Africa in the group stage, we put Andy Farrell as fly half for the first time in his entie career. That was the lowest point.

    We got better from there, even leting Farrell score a try. But we did it the hard way. This time we were too inept to do that. F# them!

  3. Scottish rugby has few players, and not much talent or money. It made the most of them, and squeaked into the quarters.

    English rugby has far more players, and much more money, than any other country’s. It always has had far more players than anyone else. It’s unknown for it to make the most of its potential strength. Its problems include lousy leadership, the disinclination of players to master skills and to accept responsibility for quick thinking on the pitch, and a general reluctance to engage brain.

    Moreover, I saw some of those problems more than fifty years ago when my school team played English schools. A full-back makes a mess of fielding a kick, with his body position all wrong: in our team we’d have given him hell. But for our English opponents, their games master shouts “Bad luck, Marcus”. Christ, it’s not as if we were coached at all really. But we went to Murrayfield for the internationals and analysed and absorbed what we saw.

    Even an unintellectual nation like Oz devotes far more thinking to sport than England. Dear God, if it’s worth playing it’s worth thinking about.

  4. Late to this one and (almost) off topic Tim but can you explain why teams playing New Zealand just stand there and passively watch the New Zealanders perform their haka? It’s always seemed to me that the appropriate response is either out-and-out laughter or ignoring the haka altogether and continue getting warmed up some distance from the New Zealanders’ antics. Standing there to be, effectively, abused is both pathetic and counter-productive.

  5. Its problems include lousy leadership, the disinclination of players to master skills and to accept responsibility for quick thinking on the pitch, and a general reluctance to engage brain.

    I concur with this. I went to a boarding school in England which was rugby mad, to the point that they didn’t care if the pupils were retarded and the teachers more so, provided the first XV got results on the pitch. To be fair, we had some decent players, several of whom played at county level, a couple at division, and one who played a game or two for England, and they put in some good performances.

    But even I noticed that the onus was on building up an aura of superiority around the players (forever praising them in school assemblies, overlooking serious failures in other aspects of their school life, allowing them to throw their weight around, giving them special privileges, etc.) rather than working on their actual skills. At the time, I thought rugby league was a far superior sport (which it was in the mid 90s, but RU has since caught up) and I used to annoy the sports masters by pointing out that Wigan was fielding 17 year olds (one of whom was Andy Farrell, ironically), i.e. lads who were the same age as these supposed superstars in our first XV. The “bad luck Marcus” attitude prevailed, as did the gushing praise even after heroic defeats. As you say, there was very little intellectual study of the game. Unsurprisingly, none of the team went on to do much professionally: one guy had a reasonable career with Sale on the wing, but the rest came to nothing.

    Interestingly, I was able to watch all this in parallel with the lads I’d left behind in Wales who were playing for the local rugby club. The Welsh lads were streets ahead, and anyone who’s gone up against a Welsh club side at junior or schoolboy level will tell you they are brilliant (especially those from the rugby heartlands). But for some reason they don’t manage to kick on to senior level very well. I suspect it is because they discover beer.

  6. It’s always seemed to me that the appropriate response is either out-and-out laughter or ignoring the haka altogether and continue getting warmed up some distance from the New Zealanders’ antics. Standing there to be, effectively, abused is both pathetic and counter-productive.

    This is because the Kiwis have successfully managed to turn the Haka into something sacred that everybody must “respect” and nobody is allowed to do anything other than stand there in admiration. It’s a bit pathetic, to be honest. During the 2011 RWC final, the French advanced over the halfway line during the Haka and copped a fine. Every time a team or individual has done something other than meekly stand there, the Kiwis go into fits of blubbering about “disrespect”. The Haka might have been an interesting spectacle at one point, but I’ve seen so many of them now – and they are so obviously made up, as they vary from game to game – that I find them a bit tedious.

  7. I’ve always found the Haka to be ridiculous and possibly offensive – and laughter should be an appropriate response – but as Tim said, that has been outlawed.

  8. Another custom which should join the meek acceptance of the haka in the dustbin of sports history is the creepy use of children (as “mascots”) to accompany players on to the field. OK this isn’t as egregious as the practice in soccer (where each player comes on holding hands with a child – ergh!!!) but what’s going on here? Is it supposed to make rugby more of a “family” sport? Manifestly it doesn’t, so why bother?

  9. The bringing of kids onto the pitch with the players doesn’t bother me so much, because it’s obviously a huge occasion for the kids (and I assume they’re not forced into it). They get to meet their heroes and presumably watch the game and keep the strip. I’ve always assumed it’s done for the benefit of the kids, anyway.

    What does annoy me is when players walk around carrying their kids at the end of a match. Next they’ll be bringing Grandma on.

  10. The history of the Haka isn’t often discussed in Kiwi circles. Go to YouTube and search for “1974 Haka” to learn why.

    Buck Shelford was the one who put a bit of testosterone into it, but it was an amusing Morris Dance prior to that.

    Carrying on warming up should be the appropriate response. Sure, you’ll probably get flogged the first few times you do it but eventually everyone will realise that an international match should have buckets of intensity without the need to hype it up like a reality TV show results announcement.

  11. Go to YouTube and search for “1974 Haka” to learn why.

    That was doing the rounds on FB a couple of weeks back. Hilarious!

  12. I used to play club rugby against Welsh sides on the morning before Scotland vs Wales at Murrayfield. We always got panned: they just knew far more about the game than us. They probably started younger and had received decent coaching.

  13. It might be because in the rugby heartlands of Wales, the kids don’t have much else: it is a real working-class sport down there, and has (or had, it’s probably changed a lot now) far more in common with rugby league in the north of England than rugby union as played in English public schools. Having spent a good few years watching rugby league in its heartlands, the intensity of the sport and the young age at which players are thrown into top-level competitions are incredible. I’d expect a similar level of intensity existed in the real RU heartlands of Wales (as you probably know by now, I’m from Pembroke which is as much England as Wales).

    I know RU is not exclusively a public school sport in England, with the rural Cornish and industrial northerners playing it as well, but the impression I got from the RU played in the public schools was that it was a hobby, something to do before going to work for Daddy’s company. In Wales, it was probably a distraction, or an alternative if the RL clubs would take an interest in you, from working in the coal mines or steel works.

    Of course, this is a generalisation. Our esteemed commentator TNA is as rough as a beggar’s arse, and he played RU in England. But it does explain why they put him at fullback. And I know another chap from Coventry who’s about as posh as I am shy and retiring, but he played prop and, let’s be honest, the only requirement for that is that you are “robust” and slightly brain-damaged.

  14. “Our esteemed commentator TNA is as rough as a beggar’s arse, and he played RU in England.”

    Ho ho ho. Timothy is being ironic; my surname is actually Obolenksy.

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