Darkest before dawn for England

assesses the state of English rugby in light of this week’s latest revelations

Jonny Wilkinson in action for England this summer, Image: M+MD via flickr Creative Commons

Jonny Wilkinson in action for England this summer, Image: M+MD via flickr Creative Commons

The reports on England’s World Cup performance leaked to the press on Wednesday are the culmination of three months of tribulation for the national side. Even in the context of English rugby’s current state, though, it is these reports that tarnish England’s reputation more than anything that had gone before.

What sets these damning reports apart from allegations of Tindall’s drunken debauchery, the shady hotel assistant incident involving Ashton and Haskell, Tuilagi’s ferry antics and the rest is that it destroys the illusion of unity that the RFU had hoped to keep intact.

The most revealing content leaked is the anonymous feedback from the players themselves and the findings only serve to vindicate every accusation brought against this team in the press. The ruthless comments see players turn on the management, on the coaches and, most ominously, on each other.

“The standard of attack coaching and defence coaching was poor. Substandard to coaching at my club”, stated one player, while another claimed he would be “delighted” if attack coach Brian Smith were to lose his job, given that England’s attack was “boring, uninventive, lacklustre, even schoolboy at times.” That 22-year-old scrum-half Ben Youngs actually took over from the ineffectual Smith during one attack session speaks volumes. Thinking of kicking coach Dave Alred permanently “swanning around in a polo shirt about to play another round of golf” when England’s kicking went so hopelessly astray during the tournament is baffling. Most significantly, the coaches are alleged to have promoted very different game plans to one another, with one of the player’s comments suggesting that the coaches “really hate each other”.

It is not just coaching that the players berate in the report; team selection is equally scrutinised. There were suggestions that captain Lewis Moody did not deserve his place at all, let alone his captaincy, given that he “wasn’t very good at team talks, just f***ed a lot.” Behind the scrum, one player suggested that even the vaunted Jonny Wilkinson “is not an attacking threat any more”.

The heavily publicised team discipline issues did not go unnoticed by the players either. “It was the senior players leading drinking games or drinking until they can’t remember anything, what example are the younger players set?”, asked one player. Some players were too obsessed with “cash and caps” observed another, while the values the management team allegedly tried to impose felt more like “empty words”. Players felt rightly resentful that one player went unpunished having missed an entire team meeting unexcused and another wished that Johnson has simply had the “b******s” to discipline the team properly.

Most worryingly, the comments laid bare the divisions between players. Rob Andrew’s claim that it was “very disappointing that a senior player group, led by the captain Lewis Moody, disputed the level of payment for the World Cup squad” is a gross understatement. Luckily for the future of England rugby, a presumably younger member of the squad claims that hearing “one senior player in the changing room say straight after the quarter-final defeat ‘There’s £35k just gone down the toilet’ made me feel sick.”

The comment that resounded most to me was this one: “I’ve never played well in an England shirt…I try my best but I know the game plan doesn’t suit me and I’m not confident because I don’t believe in what we’re following.” The frustration is almost tangible.

How was this allowed to happen? How did the RFU, the richest union in world rugby, from the home of rugby football itself send a team to the World Cup so ill-prepared? Coaches that were seemingly blasé and inept even by the players’ own standards, a captain not fit for purpose, a core of senior players apparently more concerned with their retirement funds than by the prospect of doing themselves proud, no clear game plan and an albeit well-meaning manager who showed all of his managerial inexperience: it baffles that England even reached a quarter final.

The players are not without blame, of course, and some of them might feel that by pointing the finger at their coaches they will exempt themselves from further media hassle. But that is only further evidence of the problems with this team: “a no-blame/excuse culture” exists within and it is to the detriment of the on-field performances.

The leaking of these comments may be the nadir of the modern England Rugby team and one can take heart that the dawn of the next World Cup cycle will see dramatic changes to the team.

Martin Johnson has resigned; for coaches Brian Smith (attack), Dave Alred (kicking) – and possibly for John Wells (forwards) and Mike Ford (defence) – the question may be whether they will jump before they are pushed. Pressure will surely mount on RFU director of elite rugby Rob Andrew’s head also. Lewis Moody will not play for England again; nor will Mike Tindall (assuming his punishment for disreputable behaviour is not overturned) or 38-year-old Simon Shaw. Steve Thompson, Nick Easter and Mark Cueto can all consider their days in the white jersey to be numbered.

Happily, the likely stop-gap solution of Stuart Lancaster taking charge of the team bodes well for the Six Nations. Lancaster’s usual charges, the England Saxons, have won the Churchill Cup three times out of the last four tournaments with an attractive brand of exciting rugby. His selection is likely to be less conservative and more forward-thinking; the likes of Charlie Sharples, Owen Farrell and Chris Robshaw, all of whom routinely impress in the Premiership, may finally get a taste of higher honours. More importantly, a temporary management might give the players a sense of freedom apparently not bestowed upon them in New Zealand.

Only then might we see the players perform in white as they do in club colours and only then can the England team put the spectres of the Rugby World Cup behind them.

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