I wouldn’t call it national mourning, but Englands early Rugby World Cup Exit has dominated every newspaper, radio and television station. Whether it be the effect on fast food and beer sales, or an impact on the general health and wellbeing of the general public, there have been headlines.
Apparently we are terrific losers – don’t think so,with all the handwringing and sense of despair which has been on public display from all involved, not to mention the vitriol surging through social media channels.I was taken by one story of two seven year olds at Twickers daubed in England colours shaking their heads sadly and informing a seasoned supporter that it ‘simply wasn’t good enough.’Wise words from ones so young and of course spot on, but more of that a bit later because i personally have remained inspired by this Rugby World Cup or perhaps that relegates me to good loser status.
Can there have been a better game of rugby than the one at Villa Park between Japan and Samoa?I am not given to irrelevant superlatives, but it was sensational.After the brutality of the contest with South Africa,Samoa was intent on sorting out the Cherry and Blossoms in the physical battle.Instead they were given their own brutal lesson in the fine arts of the purest rugby imaginable.The bewildering pace and running lines were exceptional,directional switches always ensured that they breached the gain line, and continuity beyond belief.Their second try has to be the try of the tournament bettered only by the one they scored against South Africa when a superbly executed back move simply tore the Springboks apart.
I fervently hope that Japan reach the last 8 because they are truly one of the worlds top eight sides,simple.If this is Eddie Jones at his best, then he can take his pick of who he wants to coach next.The only problem is that he is a maverick and that may not suit some of the stuffier nations,if you follow.Their progress would be at the expense of the Scots who have their own world cup final against Samoa in whats become a mini pool of death.I have applauded the Scots attempt to widen their horizons,but they are slower starters than the England team and thats saying something- what goes on these days in changing rooms pre match?Perhaps some good old fashioned team talks are required -its not all about process.
The other inspiration has been Georgia who made the All Blacks look second rate for long periods and thats not easy.The mammoth that is Gorgadze-of Montpellier and Toulon-carried off Man of the Match award and frightened the men in Black into 18 handling errors – they look well short of world cup winning form but then who needs to peak at the pool stages ……well……..you can say the same about Ireland who have struggled to show anything more than fitful moments of skill, normally inspired by Sexton.But they haven’t needed to- back to the two tiered nature of the RWC 2015 which has meant very different approaches from the participating teams.Thats not to decry the best efforts of Italy who fielded a half fit Parisse and would have taken the lead with 20 minutes to go save a superlative tackle from Peter Mahony.Sergio Parisse has to be the best no 8 in the world bar none, even on one leg.He played 10 for much of the match and distributed better than most flyhalfs.Its his intelligence on the ball which is so impressive, he always seems to have time to make good decisions.
If the Irish have been underwhelming,the French have been positively subterranean but then Sundays match is really the only one that ever mattered in that pool where there weren’t many serious contests excluding the Ireland Italy clash.My main concern for the French is that they cannot play the ball through the middle unless Michalak fires them up,and Ireland will squeeze him mercilessly.Fofana should be a peerless prince of centres but injuries and a boneheaded national attack strategy has long since faded his skills …..hope i am wrong because when on song he is a dream to watch.I suspect that the French team will finally show itself against Ireland because the prize is a much easier route to the latter stages and who wouldn’t prefer that – i also suspect that this entails a traditional French welcome for the Irish pack .Remember that in the two warm up games against England it was clear that the French pack was winding up to some strong performances, and also previewed Englands inexplicable decline from well defined strength in the tight to a struggle to hold their own even against Fiji.Talking of whom , they were excellent value throughout the tournament and in a lesser pool would have undoubtedly threatened a quarterfinal place.It took all of Wales defence efforts to secure a win against them on their own patch lets not forget.Glasgow’s Nakarawa will be a treat to watch on the rugby fields of Europe this season.
SO,I have tried to run out of room to talk about England although their premature departure is in everyones thoughts,even the triumphant Aussies.Losing the hosts so early removes the tournament of some of its heart and soul,unquestionably.The enthusiasm and excitement on the streets and in grounds all round the country has dissipated, with the impact of last weekends loss being felt far more widely than on the field itself.
Firstly,lets applaud Australia. If anyone wants evidence of how fracturing the midfield defence leads to crucial wins, then look no further.In fact,Joseph and Watson had similar early success to that of Foley and Beale, but everyone was so surprised that there was little or no effective support.Making key breaks is the first part of the job, finishing them off is another skill again and was a key difference.The strong performance of the Aussie pack had been predicted and they duly delivered -did England underestimate this area of their game? Regardless, it has elevated their World Cup Status to joint favourites in my opinion.Foley versus Biggar and the clash of the two back rows- even without Hooper-will be well worth watching at Twickenham this weekend.Some would say that each countries clarity around those two pivotal positions is the reason they are there at Englands expense.I would agree with that.
Enough has been written about the coaches, the preparation and the tactics.I have had my opinions over the months but ultimately none of us are on the inside and you have to trust at some point .Let me confine my thoughts to this -I suggested to Stuart at a dinner twelve months ago that the Bath back line should be picked en bloc for England.I meant it then and i still maintain that view.Look no further than Japan and Australia for the effectiveness of a more dynamic style of play which the likes of Eastmond,Joseph,Ford and Watson could supply.Add in Brown and Elliot Daly as Josephs back up and theres a back line to frighten the world.Burrell had credit in the bank to be there,and Slade is a hot property but he never got a chance.
In the forwards , i don’t know the statistics for metres run by our pack but as i saw Launchbury surge down the wing i realised what we had been missing for a number of games from the pack in general ex Billy Vunipola, our props seemed to get the ball in space far too much and if they were natural runners it would have been different.Legends like Jason Leonard and Gareth Chilcott were only given the ball if it was absolutely necessary!While mobility is now a watchword for everyone,there are better protagonists to take it on when we are in phase possession.
Lastly, the English rugby world is asking what happens next, quite rightly.Well the answer is Uruguay,who are no pushovers..Some pride to restore and some frustrated players who have been on the sidelines with a big 80 minutes in them.
After that then…..well,lets be clear.The Lancaster regime was born out of adversity and then an extreme upsurge of nationalism in appointing an English coach,a decision made by a panel including Conor O’Shea,Rob Andrew and Sir Ian McGeechan.Ian Ritchie had little choice than to accept their recommendation when his gut probably told him Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith were the clear choices.Before this,Martin Johnson had been appointed by chairman Martin Thomas – against Rob Andrews wishes- who thought this would save his own position by bringing in a World cup winning hero.Wrong,even if as many have pointed out Johnson’s record was not at all bad !!Before that,Brian Ashton- who coached me in the 80’s and is visionary-was forced into the job from within as an RFU employee then in charge of the Academy.Who by ?Martin Thomas and the CEO Francis Baron.He replaced the luckless Andy Robinson who was fired after taking on Woodward’s position post 2003 with no resource or backing,all of that team having themselves been fired.Who by ?Francis Baron, who wanted control back after Woodward’s departure.Of course it was Sir Clive who walked out when Baron and the then chairman Cattermole could not deliver him more player access after the RWC 2003 triumph- partly because their relationship with the clubs was broken.
Getting the picture ??
As i sit here surveying the scene as Chairman of European Professional Club Rugby( EPCR), i see rugby focus mixed with business acumen,a group of determined clubs and regions all round Europe building their positions for the longterm, and real sense of purpose from owners and executives alike.All aligned with the major Unions who are involved in this exciting opportunity as well.They compliment themselves superbly.
Here is the answer and it should start next Monday.Create a separate elite and executive entity which can drive professional club and International rugby forward in this country.Populate it with the right mix of people and the power of an integrated approach and it will be unstoppable.We have the players,money and resource.I hope we have the desire.Interestingly, this structure exists in some form in New Zealand,Ireland and Australia which may just give us a clue.Its now set up in Scotland under the leadership of Mark Dobson,benefits starting to come through with Glasgow at least and possibly the International team quite soon….and Wales is starting the healing process through the likes of Gareth Davies and lets not forget a certain top coach called Gatland who has delivered grand slams and world cup semi-finals!
Lancaster is right about one thing – we have the players.Let us learn from others around us,pick up the ball and head for Japan with a totally fresh and radical structure.As another heavyweight weekend of rugby approaches,English rugby needs to start planning with a humble eye on what is still the best rugby tournament ever,and yes it can do without us.