Wednesday, 11 November 2015

England 2015 - The Fallout - Part 1

I detest current affairs, I really do.   They seem to have a habit of making my opinions or articles obsolete - well, more so than usual, anyway - by providing events that overtake my detailed, well thought-out (at the time) pieces.  For example, I write a big section in the below stating that Sam Burgess should stay - he pisses off  back to Australia faster than a bloke invited to an Elle McPherson massage party.  I then write (below) in great detail how Lancaster, despite having many positives, is in an untenable position and how he should fall on his sword...and then he resigns today.  As if he wants to get out of the firing line from this 'big-hitting' article, of course.

So, whilst I've tried to adapt some of this to keep it relevant, some of it might be pretty obvious.  But, anyway, on we go to sift through the ugly wreckage of England's failed World Cup campaign - well, Part 1, anyway.  There's a lot of wreckage.

The Coaches

Let's start with the biggy, messrs Lancaster, Farrell, Catt and Rowntree, since they're the ones who ultimately had a say in most of the below.  Now, I have no doubt for one minute that Lancaster is a very decent bloke and he has certainly done a lot of good stuff for England - not least re-inventing the culture and trying to restore some pride in the shirt again.  But what became increasingly clear that, in his effort to make this England team more likeable and accessible to his fans, creating a 'new England' if you will, he forged a team that lacked killer instinct on the pitch and ultimately suffered the same fate as they did 4 years ago - in fact, worse.  Martin Johnson's England rarely gets a positive acknowledgement in pub discussions, but the similarities in World Cup campaigns - and their build up is startling.  In 2010 and 2011, Johnson had developed an attacking team that was playing some of its best rugby for a decade (and, let's not forget, they won the Six Nations championship despite becoming unstuck against Ireland) before retreating into a conservative selection and gameplan when the big games came around.  For all the off-field improvements that we can prance around and point at, on the field Lancaster's England of 2014-15 echoed the 2010-11 side in almost every way - particularly in abandoning an exciting and successful selection and gameplan for a 'safety first' mentality.  The only difference was that the 2011 side at least had a Six Nations title to show for their troubles and got out of their group.

Yes, Lancaster was head honcho and carries the can for a lot of the individual elements below, but what about the rest of the staff?  There have been whisperings for a while now that Andy Farrell has been a dominant force in the coaching set up and various failings during the World Cup - such as the regression of the attacking game in the backs and the obsession of playing Burgess at 12 - can be drawn straight back to him, despite his obvious talents as a defensive coach.  As for Mike Catt, well, nobody really knows what he did.  First he was skills coach, then attack coach, then rumoured to be backs coach, and then confirmed as skills coach.  All we know for certain is that he had a bit of a pow-wow with Danny Cipriani, and that England's basic skill set still is some way behind the Southern Hemisphere's.  Even Graham Rowntree, heralded by the Lions greats as the one of the best forwards coaches around, oversaw a set-piece as firm as a damp sponge and a pack that lacked bite.

Above all, though, the lot of them will be forever tainted and associated with the 2015 'Incident'.  It is a regime of failure; a cloud that will follow them for as long as they remain in camp and an atmosphere that will permeate any England side under their management.  We talk about the likes of Woodward and Henry being given a second chance, but they had a clear vision - a plan.  These guys don't.  For that reason, they should all walk.


No World Cup squad selection will ever be out controversy (I will go into some of the main specifics below) - for example, I would have picked Elliot Daly ahead of Alex Goode as a wild-card pick - and, truth be told, most of the side picked itself in terms of who was available.  The big shout was, of course, Sam Burgess ahead of Luther Burrell.  Now, I wasn't necessarily against the selection of Burgess - I actually thought he was probably the form blindside flanker in the league by the end of the season - but the selection, and constant obsession, of Burgess at a 12 was sheer madness.

I actually thought Kyle Eastmond was very unlucky, but - without even going in to Burgess' performances - the dropping of Luther Burrell who, whilst not having a stand-out tournament, had been solid in the Six Nations and (at long last) had developed a threatening partnership with Jonathan Joseph in the middle of the park, in favour of a bloke who was playing in a completely different position with no international rugby experience was utterly, utterly bonkers.

Would it have made a difference?  We'll never know.  Burgess certainly wasn't to blame for the defeat against Wales, but who knows how Burrell would have fared.  Perhaps the more pertinent selection issues were those described above - those which alluded to safety-first gameplan.  The dropping of Ford, the refusal to select Henry Slade, the retention of Barritt, it all painted a picture of a team that was afraid to lose rather than a side that wanted to win.  I have no idea if a side with Ford and/or Slade in would have beaten Wales, or if they would have at least clung on against Australia, but the message it sent out was overwhelmingly negative.
Fire that marketing man.
Sam Burgess

Ah Slammin' Sam.  This wasn't how it was meant to pan out.  But let's get one thing straight - it wasn't his fault that England exited the tournament at the very first opportunity.  He had a positive impact against Fiji, he was pretty solid against Wales (he kept Jamie Roberts and his jawline quiet - not an easy task) and in fact England were winning when he left the field.  Aside from Gordon D'Arcy - an overrated centre who made a career of clinging on to the coat-tails of the great Brian O'Driscoll (*awaits abuse from the Irish*) - the majority of criticism has not been leveled at Burgess' displays - but his selection as a 12 instead, which I've alluded to above.

I had genuinely thought he'd stick with union.  All the talk of his character and ruthlessness pointed to a man who would rise to a challenge and I wasn't alone in thinking that - if he got his head around the lineout and mastered some of the subtleties of flanker play (which he was picking up very quickly) he could have been a Lions 6.  Instead, he's chosen to go back where the sun is shining, where he's as golden as the beaches and where he knows his trade inside out.  I don't blame anyone for swapping England in November for Sydney, but the claim that his heart wasn't in rugby union grates on me.  He signed a three year contract.  If he wasn't going to give it even a full year, how could he even get his head around it, let alone learn to love it?  Contrary to what he's said, he has taken the easy option and annals of history will show that when the going got tough, Burgess got going.

Of course, as with so many of these points, Lancaster and his crew have to carry a huge portion of the blame themselves.  Their obsession - and I mean obsession - of playing Burgess as a 12 not only muddled the lad's mind after he had just started showing real talent as a 6, but also forced him into an impossible situation under the most extreme pressure.  No wonder the enjoyment wasn't there.

Foreign Policy

Nick Abendanon has been spewing his mouth off lately, claiming that it's "pathetic" that England players would find his selection disruptive and that it was "criminal" that players like himself and Steffon Armitage, who play their rugby in France, weren't selected for the World Cup.

The average man's reaction to Nick Abendanon's latest outburst

Shut up, Nick - the only thing criminal around here is you trying to have your cake and eat it.  And I know a thing or two about cake.  What I mean is, the rules whether you like them or not, have been clear.  You know that, if you move to France to play in the Top 14, you are probably going to double your club salary but the rub is that you won't get a look in for the national side.  Now, I guarantee that pretty much every single player in that England squad has had some Monsieur waving a big cheque around in their face at some point in their career, and a big part of them staying in England would have been their international ambition.  I can see why, if a tanned ex-pat swans in from abroad having earned double what you earned and grabs himself an England spot too, without making the financial sacrifice you did, that would make you a bit bitter. 

And, actually, the really pathetic thing here was that the likes of Abendanon were not prepared to stay in England and fight for their place, knowing full well what the rules were.  I suspect, although the accountants would have to verify that most England players could probably match what they'd earn as a non-current international in France once club salary, England fees and the enhanced commercial/sponsorship deals that come with wearing the red rose are taken into account.

The foreign policy of not selecting players playing outside of England is, however, exactly right.  Whilst a salary cap exists anyway.  With the French clubs able to pay twice as much, removing the incentive to remain in England would decimate the English club game - they simply could not compete.  The choice is to keep the current system, or remove the salary cap and relax the selection rule - not a mixture of both.

But would the selection of any France-based players have helped the World Cup cause?  Again, we'll never know for sure.  The likes of Abendanon and Flood wouldn't have been near the starting line-up, but Armitage?  Well, he certainly could have been and, if he played like he does for Toulon, he could have been a big difference - but it's a big 'if', considering that the man in question is completely unproven at Test level.  Although, you do have to wonder that if getting awarded "European player of the year" in a position where your country appears to be struggling doesn't qualify you as an 'exceptional circumstance', what does?



  1. People tout that he’s the “European Player of the Year”; well, that selection is made only from players in teams that have reached the QFs of the top level competition.

    It excludes any player, however good, in any other team.

    That makes the selection pool artificially small, and is hardly representative. Yes, he looks good behind a dominant pack, where he’s allowed to roam out defensively looking for turnovers. But that isn’t the way England have built the current team. England play the back rows more traditionally, and by and large, it works.

    1. "England play the back rows more traditionally, and by and large, it works"

      I genuinely think you may have missed what this article is about. In case you need reminding, England didn't play well enough to get out of the group stage, only winning two out of four matches. The teams that were in the final had arguably some of the best flankers of a generation.


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