Replacing the peel of church bells from England’s spires on a glorious ‘Indian summer’s morning was the clattering of chickens coming home to roost.
England had crashed out of the World Cup. Humbled, disgraced and even humiliated, defeated twice in eight days on their own home turf.
Now, I’m not going to crow about my prediction that they wouldn’t make it out of the group stage. Despite my Irish loyalties, I am deeply sorry that the hosts have left the party. It’s gone flat.
And before I tell you what I believe should now be done, I will tell you who will win the tournament, and why.
The logic is simple: The French, historically have been woeful in the early stages, even losing to Tonga in 2011. But they have been runner-ups on three occasions, and have only failed to make the semis once.
And whichever route they take, they will make the final this year.
The difficult route: Let’s say France lose to Ireland on Sunday evening, they will play New
Zealand. Now, the Blacks may be the favourites, but they are also the perennial bed-wetters of the tournament, only performing well on home soil. Added to this, they have twice been knocked out by the French and would have lost to them in the 2011 final but for Ritchie McCaw having a whistle in his pocket. France, who are a well-balanced side, and second only to Japan for fitness, will then beat an improving but aging South African outfit in the semis and Australia in the final.
The easy route: a win over Ireland on Sunday will pit them against a decent but predictable Argentinean side, and victory will reward them with a semi-final against Australia, who will have beaten Scotland to get there. They will then meet either New Zealand (assuming Ireland cannot do the tournament a favour and dispose of them and that ridiculous piece of gamesmanship called the Haka) or South Africa in the final.
So… back to what England must now do.
There is, of course, much hyperbole surrounding Stuart Lancaster’s chances of survival. Stephen Jones, with whom I turned out for Oxford Poly in the mid 70s, had a double-page spread in the Sunday Times which pretty much covered every angle of England’s demise: past, present and future.
Here are a few of his characteristically controversial points, and my own views.
1) The route of England’s problems began with the appointment of Rob Andrew, instead of Sir Clive Woodward as Elite Performance Director.
Andrew, who is paid more than double David Cameron’s salary, was appointed to oversee the professional game from the lowest to the top level in 2006. Andrew — or the Teflon Don as he is known — has overseen two disastrous World Cups and the appointment of four different head coaches. Woodward was a shoe-in for the job, and had he been appointed, things would have turned out very differently. For one thing, Lancaster would never have had a sniff of the top coaching job.
VERDICT: AGREE — Get Woodward on board at the top, no matter what it costs.
2) Replace the entire coaching staff. Jones recommends a wholesale clear-out: Farrell senior, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt in particular. Amongst the replacements he lists Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood, Neil Hartley, Dorian West, Paul Turner and Steve Borthwick .
VERDICT: The only one on that list I would appoint is Paul Turner as skills/attack coach.
Great players do not always make great coaches. Look at Martin Johnson, or Sir Bobby Charlton, for that matter. Lancaster must depart and be replaced by the best coach that England can find (Warren Gatland, Graham Henry, Eddie Jones, Jake White) no matter what the cost. Money, for England Rugby, is not an issue.
3) Find a leader. In fact, find several leaders.
Chris Robshaw is a decent, honest player who always gives of his best. But his best is simply not good enough. He is neither good enough to play international rugby at 7 nor to lead his side either on the field or off it. The decision to kick to the corner against Wales was taken by a clamouring huddle and was reminiscent of a prep school game.
In the absence of informed advice from experienced senior players tasked with supporting their captain, there was only yap.
Okay, it was a very difficult kick, but statistically the chances of Farrell bagging three points far out-weighted the probability of England scoring the try. And had he done so and taken the draw, there is a pretty good chance (subject to points difference) that England would be in the quarter-finals, even if Wales beat Australia.
Then, to compound the folly of this decision, Robshaw elected to throw the ball to the front: the easiest place to defend.
VERDICT: Appoint a ‘caretaker’ captain with a two-year contract: George Ford, Joe Launchbury or Steffon Armitige.
And that deals with the overseas issue.
4) Stop picking players fresh out of England U20s at the expense of effective and experienced senior players. If England’s best player is forty years of age — pick him. Prioritise the ‘A’ side; create an RFU funded side to compete in the Greene King IPA Championship to give young players (and ex-league players) time to acclimitise before pitching up for the Aviva Premiership and being catapulted into international rugby.
VERTICT: I AGREE, JONESY
5) Every team in the Aviva Premiership and the Greene King IPA Championship should participate in the touch-rugby summer leagues to improve handling and passing skills.
VERDICT: Here, I can only assume, Jones has his tongue firmly in his cheek. First, there is the element of practicality. I can’t see professional outfits giving up treasured pre-season time for beach rugby.
But, more importantly in my view, you need to change the culture of how you handle and not hone skills in an unpressurised environment. Players need to learn how to look after the ball better when fatigue sets in and develop pre-contact footwork rather than bosh and flop. Off-loading wins games and is meaningless in touch rugby.
Personally, Jonesy, I detest the game and don’t allow it in my training sessions.
Now, you will notice that I have not hitherto mentioned Sam Burgess in this blog.
Having been rather negative about his inclusion and possible impact in previous blogs, I now find myself feeling rather sorry for Big Sam.
It was not his fault that he failed to develop as a 12. Even his club coach Mike Ford, who knows a thing or two about the game, won’t play him there. The RFU-funded Greene King IPA Championship side idea would have been a constructive stepping-stone for Burgess.
The whole affair has been a ridiculous sideshow and only serves to show how poor the England management was in terms of selection, consistency and player management.
In conclusion, Stuart Barnes, interviewed on Sky television on Sunday morning, said that the morning after the night before was the darkest day in the history of English rugby.
For England, who are the best resourced country in world rugby with the biggest player base, not to have progressed from their group was an national outrage.
I agree with this, and share the hurt and disappointment of supporters of Rugby England; it is time to make sweeping changes and not to paper over the cracks.
Let’s get the Uruguay game out of the way then clear the hen house.