Friday, 13 November 2015

England 2015 - The Fallout - Part 2

I have to admit that I did get a bit of stick for Part 1 of my review into England's World Cup disaster.  Not because of the quality of writing which, I'm sure, was first-class as always, but because I decided to use the term 'Fallout', which coincided with the release of a very popular video game this week - meaning several grumpy (and presumably spotty-faced) gamers ended up telling me I should change the name of the article because they thought it would have something to do with zombies.

Well I'm not changing the name of the article and, to be honest, there isn't that much difference between the game and England's current situation - you could certainly argue that the fallout from the World Cup has been somewhat 'nuclear'.  (Sorry, I'd been building up to that).

Anyway, with the coaches, selections, foreign policy and Sam Burgess already reviewed, let's plough on to the other reasons that ensured that the mere mention of '2015' will cause English fans to immediately chin their drinks for years to come...

Chris Robshaw

Poor old Chris.  He gets a lot of stick, doesn't he?  Constantly (and incorrectly) slated as a '6 and a half' instead of a 7, regularly questioned on his leadership abilities and ridiculed for his slightly slow manner of speech (well, by a few I know), the England skipper goes from media darling to headline fodder more often than Katie Price after a few shandies.  But after being blitzed out of the game by the Australian back row and after 'that' call against Wales, how much of the blame should Chris Robshaw be carrying?

Let's start with the "is he an openside flanker" point.  Most of you will immediately cry "No", but I would disagree - I think he is a very decent number the northern hemisphere.  He constantly shows up well in the Six Nations, and in the last tournament he topped just about every meaningful stat chart for an open-side flanker - tackles made, carries, offloads and even turnovers (where most people point the finger) he was second, only behind Blair Cowan.  In the northern hemisphere game, he stands out as very impressive - but against the kings of the South, he got shown up very, very badly.

To be fair, he was outnumbered against the Wallabies as he couldn't contain Pocock and Hooper by himself, and his display against Wales largely saw him outshine Warburton in the battle of the 7s, but we've seen it constantly over the course of the last 4 years that Robshaw largely gets out-performed against the 'Big 3'.  To be honest, he is nowhere near the same class as McCaw, Pocock, Hooper or Louw - but who else is?  With the 'foreign policy' necessary to the protection of the English game, was there another player who could have done the job in that 7 shirt?  There was certainly no-one with experience, and that is the coach's fault as much as anyone's.

And what about his captaincy?  The sad fact is that England have lost far too many high-pressure games under his leadership and, for that, he has to carry a lot of the burden - as he must for the dodgy calls which have plagued his reign as skipper, not least the call against Wales to turn down the kick at goal.  In hindsight (a wonderful thing), it was the wrong call - Farrell was kicking everything and a draw, as it turns out, would have seen England through - but his decision was one of a series of crap calls by a selection of players, not least Geoff Parling, who ballsed up the lineout spectacularly.  A decision is only as good as its execution but for England, once again, the execution under pressure was pants.

Robshaw strikes me as a thoroughly good bloke and for me is very, very underrated, and in many ways he mirrors Stuart Lancaster.  But it's for that reason he must step aside.  His captaincy has been tainted by failure and, no matter how hard he tries, that won't change.

The Players

I seem to have spent half my time berating the coaches for various cock-ups but let's not forget that it's the players out on the pitch who are on the field making things happen - or not happen, as it were -in various situations.  Can you really hold the coaches to account for individual mistakes or, more aptly, moments of face-palming stupidity?  The Wales game is a prime example - take out the odd substitution of England's only remaining gainline-breaker, Burgess, for George Ford, and you are still left with Barritt's decision to rush up in defence to allow the Welsh attack to outflank him, the decision of Chris Robshaw to go for the try instead of the penalty goal and the decision of Geoff Parling to have the ball thrown to the front of that fateful - and uncontested - lineout.  These were all boneheaded calls by experienced players, and they have to take a massive share of the blame - but the fact is that moments of idiocy are all to common in England games, and they inevitably occur under pressure.  With these mistakes happening too often to be mere coincidence, you have to again look at their confidence and ability to perform under pressure in general - which, once again, points the finger (to some degree) at the coaches.

Aside from poor decisions by the players though, I personally refuse to believe that England lacked the players to get out of their group or even get to the Final of this World Cup.  Sure, the majority of the side falls under the 'potential' rather than 'current' world-class rankings but an on-form Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury would be sniffing around a World XV (or at least the squad), whilst the likes of Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, and Anthony Watson are all held in high regard in the southern you know they must be good.  Looking at the continued success of the under 20s, too, it's clear that potential and/or ability is not an issue for England - but they have been in an environment where, for whatever reason, they have either not been able to produce the goods consistently or where they have not been allowed to express their talents fully.


A nice, easy area to look at - if you're looking for excuses - are the absentees from the World Cup squad, and I'm not talking about those playing their rugby in France, who I've already banged on about.  I'm referring to the naughty boys - Dylan Hartley, who once again decided he'd prefer the summer off rather than strain himself with the inconvenience of a career-defining tournament/tour, and Manu Tuilagi, who wouldn't have been fit in any event (seeing that his groin is apparently still held together by sellotape) but sealed his fate by scuffling with a cabbie and 2 coppers two months before the tournament.  Clearly, neither are over-furnished in the brain department - but would either have made a positive difference to England's campaign?

Dylan's sporting attempt to squish a bug on George's face was tragically misconstrued
I think they would have done.  Now, Tom Youngs was probably England's best forward in the loose, but you can't deny that Hartley would have added big-game experience, leadership and bulk/solidarity in the scrum, an area where the hosts struggled - particularly in the bind between Youngs and Marler, which was regularly targeted.  As for Manu, well, he'd have been involved somewhere wouldn't he, no matter how well Joseph was playing.  Whether he'd slot in at 12 or as an impact sub, Tuilagi in full flow is a force of nature that very, very few sides can handle; of course, he would have been a huge asset.

But the main point here is that the above is all irrelevant.  We have no right to whinge about missing players, no matter how important they are - look at the Welsh for goodness sakes.  Sure, England would have fared better with Tuilagi and Hartley, but Halfpenny, Davies and Webb weren't exactly bit-part players themselves, were they?

The Group of Death

Speaking of nice, easy excuses, the criticism of the seeding system and the subsequent 'Pool of Death' it churned up as come in for a fair amount of lip-service.  Even Warren Gatland has chirped up in England's defence - which is, in itself, a collector's item - calling the issue 'ridiculous'...although you sense he may have just been sticking up for a fellow coach who was under the cosh, there.  But he does have a point.  I get that there needs to be certainty because of TV deals and scheduling and the like, but three years?  Seriously?  So much can change in that time (and it has) that the groupings cannot possibly be reflective of the current standings in World Rugby.

But let's nip that in the bud there.  "If only this had happened..." is a pretty lame excuse to be laying down and the flipside of the moaning is that Stuart Lancaster had three years to prepare for a group that would contain 4 of the world's top 10 sides.  It's a crap system, but the call was made, and we failed to deal with it - end of.  Besides, if we hadn't been landed in that group, we'd have only ended up lumbered with the All Blacks.  Or worse, Japan.

The reaction of all non-English fans when 'The Group of Death' is mentioned


Let's get one thing straight.  The RFU can take no blame for England's preparation for the World Cup - Stuart Lancaster had everything he could possibly have asked for.  World-class training facilities, financial backing to bring in an army of specialists and the latest technology, a positive relationship with Premiership clubs - you name it, the RFU provided it.  Certainly, as far as I'm aware, there were no back-office arguments going on in the build up to the World Cup, or wafts of 'old-farts' distracting from the playing side of things.

But, of course, where the RFU are accountable is in the appointment of Stuart Lancaster and the coaching team himself.  If the coaches are accountable, then so are the guys who appointed them - and it always struck me at the time that giving the gig to an 'RFU man', after a decent (but not stunning) Six Nations rather than someone with international experience, was a bit of a cop-out.  But hindsight is a bit of a cow really.  Nonetheless, Ian Ritchie said he would take full responsibility for any World Cup failing, so it will be interesting to see if he's true to his word.  

And, as a side-point, surely it would be sensible for the RFU to appoint a chief-executive who at least has some background in the game, rather than someone who probably thinks that "handling the ball in a ruck" is a detailed sexual position rather than a piece of rugby terminology.

...Something Else?

Of course, it could be none of the above.  It could be, as Thierry Henry would say, a bit of "je ne sais quoi" that proves to be the downfall of not only England, but any northern hemisphere side, against their southern counterparts.  Be that ambition, basic skills or basic mentality - as Pres has previously written, the 'big three' seem to expect to win, rather than hope to win, like the English now do (demonstrated by the fact that we almost throw a national holiday after any victory over the southerners).  

This will prove harder to remedy, since all the other issue previously mentioned have very definite answers, but the fact that the Under 20s perform so well on such a regular basis surely tells us that the issue lies in the development between the youth and senior elite set-up.

What the precise issue is, I'm not really sure - but I do know it will take a lot of time and hard work to fix.


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