As the dust starts to settle on what was an abysmal attempt to qualify for the next round, I decided I’d have a look at what, in my opinion, was the crux of the issue for this young and talented side, and why it just didn’t work out for them.
Injuries, Pools and bad refereeing decisions aside (which unfortunately there were many, but hey, maybe I’m biased) the simple fact of the matter is that England still play a game too safe, too nice and are falling behind the rest of the rugby world as it continues to progress. The shame of the situation is we have more than enough talent and capability in our country, and such strength in depth of players to challenge and possibly even win world tournaments, we just need to be bold in our decision making, and more crucially make the right ones at the right times.
The most obvious and the most harrowing error in judgement possibly comes at players excluded from the squad for various reasons, that actually, would have strengthened this english team beyond measure and given us a real platform of stability. Beginning with the obvious, the decision to exclude all players playing their club rugby outside of England is criminal. By doing this, England lost out on the last 2 consecutive european players of the year, and, most crucially, as exploited by Australia, the presence of a truly world class back rower in the shape of Steffon Armitage. On Saturday Australia’s David Pocock made three turnovers, and England’s Chris Robshaw? 0. The man in the shirt Armitage would surely wear, failing to make an impact on the pitch when needed most. A thoroughly decent bloke, a true English gent, but he is not an international calibre rugby player, let alone an international captain. At club level he excels, but he fails to make the bridge in standards, something many players have failed to do, but something that none the less, compromises England’s chances of progression through the tournament. Earlier in the year the RFU blocked a move from Steffon Armitage to move to bath to make himself eligible, but still don’t allow him to play for the country when in France, and he, a world class back row who can carry and tackle all day and is an incredible addition to any squad for his talents at the breakdown, could be the spark that will make a difference in this squad. Last year, Australian Coach, Michael Cheika, abolished the rule that only players playing in super rugby are eligible for selection to allow him access to players such as Matt Giteau, who was immense on Saturday night against England. If England are to catch up with the rest of the world they need to abolish this rule to allow themselves access to their best players. Alternatively, if they refuse to abolish this policy, they need to find someway to inject excitement and prowess into the Aviva Premiership to entice world class rugby players to come back and base themselves in our country.
Englands other diabolic decisions came in the omissions of Dylan Hartley, a world class hooker, who’s prowess at the line out is up there with the best in the world and he is exceptional in the loose as a ball carrier. To leave a player out based on disciplinary issues is stupid, in the hard hitting, fast moving game that rugby has become, it is easy to be caught up in the heat of the moment. I can understand Stuart Lancaster’s desire to make a stand and show he will not accept ill discipline from his players, something he takes pride in, but before a home world cup, going into arguably the toughest ever world cup group is ludicrous. The same can be said for the exclusion of Manu Tuilagi, a man, not yet proven guilty of committing any offence, cleared to play by police, and a force in the English mid-field, still omitted on discipline grounds. England have got too caught up in playing nice and showing excellent character all of the time. Thats not how rugby works, its a rough game full of testosterone, you need to play nasty to keep up with the rest of the world.
Moving forward I believe that it is crucial to change selection policy full stop, because who ever is in charge now is doing it wrong. The omission of Dave Atwood, England’s best scrummaging lock, and a possible candidate for England Captaincy in the coming years, was a huge loss, both as a leadership figure and in the scrum, where England were dominated. There is a huge depth of talent in the lock position in English rugby, but the standout 3, in my eyes are Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Dave Atwood, and England’s pack needs to be based around these 3 young players coming through to build towards being world cup champions in 2019. Another very poor selection choice was to pick Sam Burgess, or not even to pick Sam Burgess, to pick him and play him, in a different position to that he plays in club rugby. A novice to the sport, should not have been involved in this world cup, he should work for 4 years time, that is if he wants to stick at this code.
Moving on yet further (sorry) England need to rebuild their coaching team. However, I think there are 3 key members who need to retain their jobs. Those being Graham Rowntree, who has worked exceptionally with our pack over the years and is the man who can best rebuild it. Mike Catt as the backs coach, he has brought so much more attacking flare into the team and made us look a threat when moving forward, and lastly, and possibly most controversially, I believe Stuart Lancaster should keep his job as head coach. I would like to see how the team progress without Andy Farrell having such a big say around the team. And the most notable influence is the continued selection of his son Owen. Ask many England rugby fans up and down the country, they would all say that without doubt, George Ford is the man to lead England from the ten position. Calm under pressure, technically brilliant and great at standing flat to give the backs forward momentum, George earned his 10 shirt, to see it taken from him so bizarrely after his first under par game for his country, to be replaced by a man who is firstly a more natural 12 then 10 and has had many poor games and subsequently went on to have 2 against Wales and Australia, yes his goal kicking was good, but elsewhere he just does not match up to George Ford. The inclusion of Danny Cipriani to add attacking flair would have been a decision much applauded and would have been a true show of defiance and courage from Lancaster, that is what England need to help rebuild moving forward.
To summarise, finally, moving forward to 2019 and building to winning a world cup, England need to pick the young exciting players and give them time to progress and shape into international players. By the time Tokyo comes around there needs to be a side with far more than an average of 26 caps between them. Experience on this stage is crucial, though people can’t confuse inexperience for flair and exciting experimentation going forward. England need to play as much test rugby as possible to give young players time to make themselves World Cup contenders. This should start with the dead rubber against Uruguay, its time to let these youngsters who have been selected a chance to prove to people why they are there in the first place.
England need to take chances, experiment and play their rugby with a new found flair and passion over the next 4 years as they work to be world beaters once more, and once certain things have been addressed, there is no reason why this cannot be a possibility. What happened in our home world cup was a great shame, but its time to move on and make something out of disaster. We have such a great pool of talent, it would be a dire shame to waste it.