So (I hate sentences beginning with ‘so’, but it seems an appropriate beginning), the Rugby World Cup 2015 is over. England did the country proud; the England organising committee that is, I’ll get to the rugby team in a minute or two.
New Zealand, after being relatively quiet in their group matches which made more than a few question their ability to fulfil their stated aim of being the first country to retain the Webb-Ellis Cup, suddenly began firing, most ominously, in the knock-out stages, destroying France in the quarter-final, trouncing South Africa with a not very close two point win in their semi-final, and then, but for 10 minutes in the second half when they were down to 14 players on the pitch, comprehensively out-playing their Tasman Sea ‘brothers’, Australia (who many fancied to win) with a 34-17 triumph orchestrated by the retiring Kiwi demi-God, Dan Carter and Captain Fantastic, the possibly retiring, Richie McCaw.
That England went out in the group stages mattered not a jot, in the end. They really weren’t missed. The tournament went on, the party continued. The rugby played by all the remaining teams was fantastic. England were the first to be knocked out, so there were still 19 to choose from for those England supporters looking for a new country to cheer on – I, too briefly, became a Scot… then an Argentinian… then a Kiwi.
Perhaps it was, as had been pointed out by some of the better informed commenters, that this group of England players weren’t quite ready this time around. That may have been true, but this ‘group’ comprehensively outplayed an Australian team less than a year previously – an Australian team who went on to the final in fine style this weekend.
Maybe it was the weight of expectation; as ever, the press ramped up that expectation to unsustainable levels. The fact is, that there aren’t enough ‘world class’ players in the current England squad. However, I believe the fault – is there is a fault – lies elsewhere.
I like Stuart Lancaster. He seems to be a very up-front and straightforward man; that’s what you would want in a coach, particularly one trying to instil and ethos of pride in ‘shirt’, an ethos the All Blacks have exuded for years. Just listen to any interview with any former All Black from the last thirty, forty or fifty years and that’s what they talk about ‘earning the right’ to wear the shirt; Sean Fitzpatrick in particular of the players who have represented the Kiwi nation in World Cups.
Lancaster has also tried to instil an ethos of taking personal responsibility – agree with it or not, it is why both Dylan Hartley (headbutted opposing hooker) and Manu Tuilagi (assaulted taxi driver) were dropped immediately they transgressed seriously enough.
For the, almost, four years from his appointment (as a result of the ‘debacle’ down under at RWC 2011) Lancaster set about dissecting that 2011 squad, gradually building the new ‘England’ in his own image. What seemed like sensible man-management in chopping and changing players early on, though, should have set alarm bells ringing as it continued. Seemingly, other than captain Chris Robshaw’s place and, later, Mike Brown at full back, nowhere was settled. In certain positions, the wings being a prime example, there was a plethora of talent to choose from. The indecision on the best players for specific positions never disappeared, even though the 2015 Six Nations team seemed the most settled they had been under Lancaster.
Take the centre pairing. Throughout the Six Nations, Luther Burrell and Jonathon Joseph were the centre pairing – and they were fantastic and exciting. They fired where other pairings hadn’t really sparked. And they sparked behind the creative young fly-half, George Ford. That Lancaster, with his coaching staff, chose to definitively end that centre partnership by not selecting Burrell in the final 31, choosing Brad Barritt whose form was seemingly unquestioned and then selecting a ‘rookie’ in Sam Burgess who had only appeared in the home warm up game against France (albeit starting the game and finishing all 80 minutes) was baffling. However, I don’t think that Lancaster saw either Burgess or Barritt as the choice in place of Burrell. Those two were ‘nailed on’ it seems; the choice was Burrell or the exciting youngster, Henry Slade.
With hindsight – always easy, I know – Barritt was horribly out of form, Burgess was out of position (Bath are using him in the back row of the scrum – where, one day, he could be England’s Michael Hooper or David Pocock rather than England’s ‘Sonny Bill (Williams)’) and horribly exposed as a neophyte. Burgess himself is, in my view, completely blameless and I hope he chooses to stay at Bath, gains the experience he needs in Union, and has a another shot at glory in Japan in 2019.
Of other selectorial blunders/indecision, there was the odd decision to slot Owen Farrell back in at 10 in place of the blameless George Ford, seemingly as soon as he was considered fit. Odd in that Ford, who hadn’t put a foot wrong, had opened up the backline fabulously during the Six Nations while Farrell was unfit. England – with Ford, Burrell and Joseph along with Mike Brown and whoever was playing on the wings (May, Watson, Nowell) – had stumbled upon an exciting back division that caused huge problems for the opposition in both attack and defense; but the management seems to have missed it in the myopic decisions to have Barritt and Burgess in come what may and Farrell playing at any cost.
It was highly enlightening that during the pool match against Australia, England only began looking like a cohesive team when Farrell moved to inside centre having been replaced by Ford at fly-half – with the non-firing starting centre partnership broken up.
There were problems elsewhere on the field too; two of which could also be viewed as self-inflicted. First was the increasingly frustrating failure to secure line-out ball. How much of this can be attributed to Tom Youngs’ throwing (in place of the unavailable Hartley) is debateable. Clearly missing, though, was someone in the lineout able to sort out the problems. Geoff Parling was deputed to do that job. The self-inflicted element (other than the missing Hartley) was the non-selection of the European Player of the Year, Steffon Armitage, a hugely influential No 8 or flanker, not selected, apparently, because he didn’t play in England (the same reason both his centre brother, Delon and club colleague Nick Abendanon – another ERC player of the year – were not considered).
Another issue with Lancaster – and his coaching colleagues – was the apparent decision to select a team to counter the opposition rather than select one that would play the best way (as shown in the 2015 Six Nations) that England play. So, not only did they not select the best players available in the first place regardless of where they played, they then became too focused on neutralising the opposition rather than playing to their own strengths.
So after the event, the RFU are investigating what went wrong and why, although there are already arguments both about the scope of the inquiry and the make-up of the panel leading the investigation. Here – for what it’s worth (nothing) are what I hope the conclusions are;
- Keep Stuart Lancaster as manager/head coach.
- Bring in Wayne Smith – whatever it takes – to further instill the ‘respect the shirt’ ethos and open up the way the team defends and attacks.
- Make the best players available for selection – wherever they play (France isn’t that far).
Maybe that’s too simplistic.