England completed their fixtures on Saturday and exited the World Cup. It was a massive let down and a glazed Stuart Lancaster looks as if he doesn’t know what’s hit him. The previous Saturday’s painful 13-33 defeat to Australia, three tries to one and a 20-point winning margin, was a fair reflection of the two teams’ performances on the night, and followed the previous week’s 25-28 capitulation to Wales.
The Group of Death was always going to yield a high profile eviction. It may yet prove terminal to Lancaster’s coaching position. He has been jeered and ridiculed in the subsequent scrutiny and knee-jerk calls for his head on the spikes outside Traitors Gate. It’s been a cruel and unwarranted treatment for a decent man, a miserable way for four years of optimism, planning and dedication to come crashing down around him.
Did we buckle under the pre-tournament expectations, did we lack the mental toughness for the ‘winner take all’ battles, or simply, did the better sides beat us? England’s failure poses questions about the coach, captain and tactics, and the very quality of English rugby, after our elimination from our once-in-a-lifetime home World Cup.
Returning to Manchester Saturday morning having attended the Friday night All Blacks v Tonga game in Newcastle, I eyed with envy the blokes in the golden Wallabies jerseys crossing my path at Piccadilly Station on their jaunty journey to the Pool A decider with Wales at Twickenham. I felt passionately we’d make the final and have a do with the All Blacks.
On Saturday we showed glimpses of a potentially bright future – Jack Nowell – one of six England players making their first appearances of the World Cup – Henry Slade, Dan Care, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph showed what they could do, but often England fumbled instead of popping over through gaps.
When England did break through, the game settled into a pattern of carelessness and imprecision, as we have all tournament, labouring to clear out at the breakdown and so finding ourselves hemmed in, struggling to take flight and soar, seemingly lacking the slickness and adroitness needed to win at the highest level.
But when you look at it in the cold light of day we were beaten by two sides who were ranked higher than us so there may have been an expectation the team might have struggled. You have to look at it objectively rather than having emotions running and drawing the wrong conclusion.
Winning at Under-20 level, as England Saxons have done in recent years, is one thing, but we’ve had five defeats in the past 12 months in the big games: Ireland away, and South Africa, New Zealand, Wales and Australia at home. In this oft-quoted ‘results-based business’, that sequence represents serious questions about our mentality, capability and leadership. The fifteen-minute defence by Australia v Wales, when down to thirteen men, showed the gap.
The selection, the tactics, the captain, the balance. Too slow in thought and deed. Regret and sombre soul searching for what might have been, or baying for blood and wholesale changes? My view of Lancaster is that he is a decent man, meticulous with detail, good with young players, but struggling to get the best from the teams in their defining contests. For now the feeling is emotional rather than analytical. A return to the everyday routine, no more England games.
We seem to have lost a bit of what makes England good: the audacity and the tenacity of having a real crack. When a team doesn’t perform to expectations, it is clearly reasonable to question the leader, but is it all Lancaster’s fault? Plainly not. Before the tournament we knew that England lacked one World XV player, and the absence of sufficient quality when competing at the highest level makes life very tough sooner or later. So why the undignified rush to queue up and berate Lancaster?
Lancaster has crafted a clear long-term talent development strategy as head of elite player development and coach of the Saxons, producing a generation of young players like never before, but they haven’t hit the mark as anticipated. When young talent doesn’t succeed as expected, should you simply throw in the towel and start again, or perhaps be more reflective – it’s not all about why England lost, why did Australia win? Australia was outstanding on consecutive Saturday nights against Wales and us.
Yet after all the hope, it wasn’t even close. The sooner we acknowledge the Wallabies were technically, tactically and individually better than England, then the hullabaloo for recriminations will be more considered and a more sensible tone of voice emerge as to what to do next. After all, no one bemoaned the preparation, squad picks or management before the competition.
The currency of sport is simple, binary and stark. Winning is what matters. Lancaster’s England side fell short. The hanging, drawing and quartering of Lancaster and his fellow coaches has been under way for over a week, without any reference to the potential remaining. England must avoid being too hasty in the final analysis, I’m refusing to get carried away in the inquest and I will not jump on the Lancaster-must-go bandwagon.
I confess, I have soft spot for Lancaster, I’m an advocate of his strategy and approach to long-term development of youth, but the unrelenting calls for change? Enough, let’s reflect a little.
Lancaster has overseen the development of a talent pipeline like we’ve never had before. We potentially have an unbelievable group of players. Twenty-four of the squad were in their first World Cup, the majority will be around in 2019, if not 2023.
Ultimately, a lot comes down to players maturing, developing and getting more experience. Lancaster tried to develop the team for 2015 but ultimately that’s not happened. Australia had 750 caps in their starting team and we had 450. We can go through the whys and wherefores of that, but the fact that we had so many players over 30 in the 2011 squad means he had to focus on youth.
We have been successful in the U-20s World Cup for a reasonable amount of time. If we continue to develop, England will have a far better chance of winning in Japan in 2019 than they had on home soil. By then, the likes of George Ford, Henry Slade, Anthony Watson and Joe Launchbury could and should be among the best players in the sport. That is in no small part due to the current coach.
Build on the experience
World champions New Zealand came into the tournament with an average 48 caps per player and with a total of 269 tries between them. South Africa average 42 caps and 220 tries; Australia, 40 caps and 191. England averaged 25 caps and had a grand total of 67 tries. It showed.
As you looked around the pitch at the end of the game on Saturday, there was at a side with youthful potential but lacking a defining style and the experience to cope. Subsequently we’ve seen the alternative argument being played out in the starkest fashion, the clash between the pressing need to pick a team that can win the next match, and the expectation to create a side that might thrive in the future.
At the end of the 2011 World Cup, stalwarts like Mark Cueto, Lewis Moody and Jonny Wilkinson retired. We’ll be a lot more resilient for what we’ve come through. The team have had lessons in the harshest of environments.
I see good young players who have been well developed by good coaches in a good environment. Small margins and big consequences are the reality in games that count. Lancaster will look back on the experience of the World Cup. Those experiences will make him a better coach. You learn more from defeats and failures than the successes.
Ultimately, England were technically below par in many areas at a hugely competitive World Cup where almost all other teams are raising their game. Fiji and Japan have shown the smaller nations are catching up with the big beasts.
What happened to England’s forwards when collective push came to shove? The scrum did not do as well as expected. Against Australia, England conceded five scrum penalties to a team they mangled up front less than a year ago. They were forced to replace both first-choice props with less than an hour gone.
Coaching can only develop skills and talent to far. Lancaster went into this World Cup still unsure of his best XV. He picked a rugby union novice in Sam Burgess and selected a young talent in Henry Slade who started one game. A winning team cannot be built on such foundations, yes our selections weren’t consistent, yet perhaps the reality is that other teams have more skills and talent.
Continuity of leadership
Clive Woodward endured a rough first World Cup in 1999 and was roundly condemned by people who would later reinvent themselves as his greatest supporters. He was retained, largely because no one was kicking down the door to replace him, and he duly laid hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy four years later.
When the All Blacks were sent packing at the quarter-finals in the 2007 tournament, coach Graham Henry was deemed a figure of ridicule. Again, he was reappointed and led the All Blacks to victory four years later.
Martin Johnson stepped down as England manager in November 2011 after a World Cup quarter-final defeat by France. I thought that was wrong. He hadn’t got experience and would have grown a great deal.
Lancaster is a good man and has produced a side with good values. All leaders who have been in their job for a while have rollercoasters. Those times are extremely difficult.
Too often we burn our leaders because of public opinion and media opinion, rather than informed judgement. Continuity of leadership is vital if you want to produce something special. They know where they have been and where they are at and what they need to do to get better. If you bring a new person in, it starts all over again and takes someone new two or three years to get their feet under the table.
Set realistic success targets
Truly, England was never going to win the 2015 World Cup despite home advantage. We have to acknowledge that the gap between the Southern and Northern Hemisphere teams has grown bigger, they have better, more talented players than we do. That’s the yardstick and challenge to throw down to Lancaster and for him to continue in his role for a further four years, nurturing and developing the talent he has created. Judge him then.
Along the way to 2019, we must target immediate success as stepping-stones, in the Six Nations and on the 2016 summer tour to Australia. We have to set the goal of becoming the best team in the Northern Hemisphere. Let’s win a Six Nations, win a Grand Slam as a near-term target.
This is not to suggest that things should remain the same, there needs to be a proper review as to why England failed to achieve more, but we must think very carefully before jettisoning Lancaster, if we accept we have the nucleus of a good side, his knowledge of them as people as well as players, is invaluable.
Individuals in a team game
Mike Brown has set the standard for the review of our performance, with a pithy appraisal of where the England’s players stand in the global pecking order. Asked for the principal lesson he would take from the tournament he said: Individually we need to all strive to be the best player in the world in our position. Looking at the New Zealanders, most of them would get in a World XV, and that’s what I’ll be aiming to do, because at the moment, if you’re honest, which one of our players would be in a World XV?
If we focus on individual performance, it will come together as a XV on the pitch.
One of the biggest causes of the knee-jerk calls for Lancaster’s dismissal is the hell-bent need to ‘get it right.’ We strive for perfection and success, and when we fall short, we feel worthless. What we don’t seem to realise is that striving for success and being willing to put ourselves out there is an accomplishment within itself, regardless of how many times we fail.
Share, listen, reflect and learn. England must avoid being too hasty in the final analysis and submit to the backlash. Focus on progress rather than perfection and on how far we’ve come rather than on how far we have left to go. Long-term thinking in a short-term world. As Einstein said, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. We sit in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.