Monday, 5 October 2015

RWC 2015 - England: Over And Out

I wrote a predictions blog for this Rugby World Cup which contained how I thought the tournament would play out (funny that). I’m looking back at an off-the-cuff remark when summing up Pool B over and over. No, not the one about South Africa not being tested by Japan, but one just below that. I wrote the following:

I think Japan will beat USA and use that as a platform to build on for when they host the world cup in 2019 (by the way, has a host ever gone out at the group stage?)

It was just a throwaway question, not intended to annoy any Japanese rugby fans. It also wasn’t intended to cause any more thought than “No, I guess there hasn’t been a host nation eliminated at the group stage”. After England lost to Wales 28-25, they were in last chance saloon. They had to beat Australia. Anything less just wouldn’t be good enough. Anything less and England would have the unfortunate title of being the first host nation to be eliminated at the pool stage. Everyone who follows rugby knew the task England faced was a mammoth one. This Australia team was not the same one Michael Chieka had just inherited when they faced England last November. This was a new beast – one that had just won the Rugby Championship. There was a lot of chat in the week about how England would win a battle of the forwards and how their scrum would dominate the Australia scrum. Ben Youngs even came out and said in an interview that England would blow Australia away in the first 20 minutes. If nothing else, England went into this game confident they would win. The team selection was almost identical to the one that faced Fiji on opening night – the only difference being Owen Farrell in at 10 instead of George Ford (I think). The stage was set. England expects.

Australia won 33-13, their biggest ever win over England at Twickenham. England were not only beaten, they were humiliated by Australia. England are the first host nation to not make it out of the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup. Their pool was incredibly hard, and it was remarkable to consider the quarter finals of a Rugby World Cup without one of Australia, England or Wales. I’m going to steal a quote from Ric Flair here, but to be the best, you have to beat the best. England lost to Wales and they lost to Australia. It was unlikely that this England team were going to win the World Cup, but to be the best, you have to beat the best. England didn’t beat the best. Arguably, they could/should have beat Wales but their discipline was terrible and the replacements made things worse for England. The last call to go to the corner wasn’t a terrible one but what followed it was. England lost to Australia because they were second best across every part of the game. One noticeably area where Australia got the upper hand was the scrum, being awarded 3 penalties at scrum time. Another area was the break down. England had no player who is an expert at winning the ball (or slowing it down) at the break down – Australia played two expert open-side flankers in Pocock and Hooper. England didn’t have a hope of being able to compete. Chris Robshaw’s continued presence in the 7 shirt for England has long been a cause for concern for people who want expertise at the breakdown over work rate. If only there was a player who is a world class 7 who could have played for England in this World Cup. Oh.

The first half was pretty unmemorable for England. They were getting over the gain line but really their attack was nothing to write home about and they ended the half on 3 points. It was about what they deserved as they never really looked like threatening Australia’s try line. England’s game improved when George Ford came on at half time. However what this change meant was that Farrell was in at 12 (not his favoured position), Barritt at 13 (not his position) and Joseph on the wing (not his….well you get my drift). The first half was all Australia and England’s response was to move players out of their favoured positions, just so England didn’t have to sub Farrell. If this was England’s Plan B then I was not impressed. However, for a while I thought I was going to be proven wrong as England started to come back into the game. England’s only try from Watson was very well taken. England got back to within 10 points and just maybe, just maybe the comeback was on. However, it was not to be. The death knell came just after the 70 minute mark. Two tackles happened in quick succession. Owen Farrell did not wrap his arms in a tackle, and Sam Burgess hit a high tackle on another player. Both offenses were worthy of yellow cards. Only one was given though, to Owen Farrell. However, this offense took place right in front of the posts, giving Australia a 13 point lead. England, down to 14 men then conceded another penalty which gave Australia a 16 point lead. It was all over, so really the try at the end from Matt Giteau was just unnecessary, but little more than England deserved. The final whistle followed soon after confirming that England had been eliminated.

An article published in the Telegraph summed up 10 things Stuart Lancaster got wrong leading up to this World Cup. I have attached the link, but I want to talk about some of the items raised in the article

·         Sam Burgess – In selecting Sam Burgess, Lancaster dropped Luther Burrell. Burrell played in the centres in the last two Six Nations (in all the games I believe). Burrell was a part of a back line that scored 18 tries in 5 games in this year’s Six Nations. Sam Burgess has been playing Union for less than a year, and played a large part of that time as a forward. Ditching Burrell for Burgess was a mistake. Yes, Burgess played well against Wales in the centre following the injury to Joseph. But had Burrell been picked, Barritt could have stayed at 12. Or Burrell could have played 12 and Slade could have played 13. Instead, Burgess played at 12 and Barritt played out of position at 13. I am a Bath fan, and I recognise that Burgess potentially has a lot of offer Bath and England in the future if he continues to play Union. However, his club head coach, Mike Ford, recognises he would be better suited as a blindside flanker. Why Lancaster picked him as a centre, I will never know. This was a mistake. Does Burgess have an England future? Yes, but not as a centre. If he continues his development at 6 for Bath, and becomes an expert there, then he should be picked there for England. If there are better players in that position, then he shouldn’t be picked for England. Doesn’t seem too much like rocket science to me…

·         Dylan Hartley – Due to another ban, which would have meant Hartley missing the Fiji game, he was dropped from the England training squad. The first choice hooker was then Tom Youngs. Tom Youngs is a decent player in open play. When it comes to the scrum and the lineout, Dylan Hartley is significantly better and his experience was clearly missing from the England team. On reflection, he should have been picked and just not selected for the Fiji game. Of course you could ask would teams have targeted him to try and rile him up – this is of course possible. A tough call to make.

·         Ford or Farrell – Farrell was Lancaster’s first choice fly half for his first 3 years in charge. Ford took over towards the end of the Autumn internationals in 2014 and was first choice during the Six Nations this year. Ford did not deserve to be dropped for the Wales game, and I think had he started in the Wales and Australia games, we could well be talking about different results. By the way, shoe-horning Farrell in at 12 is a poor idea. The man plays fly half – if you need him on the pitch, then replace Ford. Don’t play them both.

·         Centre Partnerships – England played Fiji with a centre partnership who had played 1 previous game together. The centre partnership for the Wales game had played no games together. This goes back to picking Burgess over Burrell. Although, for the Wales game, instead of playing an untested centre partnership, why not play Burgess and Slade? At least they had played one game together, which is more than Burgess and Barritt had. Lancaster was accused of not having settled on a back line – this World Cup proved this was the case.

·         Oversea’s players – Australia changed their rules ahead of the World Cup, allowing them to pick Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell (hey, it could allow others to be picked in the future, but these are the two players who benefitted from the rule change now). I do respect the RFU’s position on players not playing their rugby in England. They don’t want the best players to go to France and elsewhere. England got dominated at the break down by Australia, whilst Steffon Armitage sat at home watching the game on TV. At times, England looked as though they needed someone to step up and really change their games, whilst Nick Abendanon sat at home. Why not set a cap? A England head coach can only pick 2/3 players who don’t play their rugby in England. Some people will of course leave England for the better money of France. However, set a small cap of players who can leave England but still be picked for the national team and you won’t see a mass exodus of talent. At the time the squad was announced, I agreed with Lancaster and the RFU not picking players who played abroad. Now? I’m not so sure. I want the best players who can play for England playing for England.

·         Robshaw – Was Chris Robshaw the best choice for captain? There were times when people were wondering if he even deserved his place in the first XV. He is not an openside flanker in the sense that Pocock and Hooper are, and this showed in the game against Australia. One major call gone wrong against Wales and questions were asked. However, one for me which didn’t make sense was when the score was 3-3 in the Australia game. England had penalty advantage but carried on playing. Eventually advantage over was called, and Australia won the ball back. Why didn’t Robshaw instruct a ball carrier to try and take the penalty England were being offered and try and take the lead? It would have only been a lead of 3 points but it could have changed the dynamic of the whole game. Continuing to back Robshaw may have been a mistake.

So, what now then? Having had over a day to think about it, I think we need to play some of the fringe players against Uruguay so at least they can say they played at this World Cup (start Jamie George, Danny Care, Jack Nowell, Alex Goode and Henry Slade). The result doesn’t matter anymore (obviously it would be awfully embarrassing if England lost again). I suggest however that if England pick Slade, then they should pick him at 13, and have Sam Burgess partner him in the centres. Another new combination there for Stuart Lancaster would just be laughable at this stage.  

After the game, the post-tournament post-mortem can begin properly. From all accounts, Stuart Lancaster has done a good job in that the environment was not a good one in the England camp in 2011 and now it is significantly better. However, you are judged on results. In 2012, England beat New Zealand. Since then? Aside from a couple of wins against Australia, there really hasn’t been much to crow about. Out of 4 Six Nations tournaments, England have finished second 4 times. Couple that with a pool stage exit in a World Cup does not look good on the coaching team’s collective CV. I think it is time to replace them. The last few coaches of the England team have been English. I’m not sure if this is a policy of the RFU but I would consider looking elsewhere for the next head coach. Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have done really very well in their respective roles of head coach of Wales and Ireland. This could work well for England as well. There has been some chat about whether the people currently in charge at the RFU have the ability to attract a top coach. Maybe it is time for changes at the very top as well. If ever there is a time to do it, that time is now. The RFU had discussed this World Cup potentially being an inspiration for the growth of the grassroots of rugby union in this country – England being eliminated early doors will do nothing to help with that. England’s failure will have an impact across the whole game, and that is something the RFU has to be held accountable for.

I would also suggest a change in captain, although if they change the head coach then I imagine this much is inevitable. I’m not sure who I would pick to be captain, but it needs to be someone who can lead the team for the foreseeable future. My initial thought of someone who if fit, will likely be on the team sheet is one of the locks, Lawes or Launchbury. I suspect Kruis will be challenging them for the starting position in the future, which is no bad thing. One of those two could do a good job as captain. However, there is a significant lack of experience in this England team, and that could be a problem when picking a captain. It could be worth picking a captain for the next two seasons whilst a new look team is being arranged and then from there is a change is needed, select the captain who will take England into the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

To summarise – this campaign could hardly have gone worse for England. They have the unfortunate record of being the first Rugby World Cup host nation to be eliminated in the pool stages. Yes, it should be pointed out that they had a very hard pool to contend with but they looked 3rd best in the group, and that is where they will finish. Discussions need to be had now about the future of England. I think major changes are needed including a shakeup at the RFU and a change in coaching staff for England. Put simply, the overall performance at this World Cup has just not been good enough, and as a result – heads should roll.

I am saddened by what has happened in this tournament. But I will still support England going forward. The suggestions I have made in this blog are not a list of demands. If the RFU sticks with Lancaster, who in turn sticks with Robshaw, they will have my full support. Overall that is what England need right now, the full support of the fans. We can all hold our own opinions privately about what we’d do with the team and the RFU, but the main thing is when the Six Nations rolls around, to support England all the way. 

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