Two days on from the humiliation that was England’s 33-13 defeat to Australia, which eliminated them from their home tournament at the first hurdle, the questions have now turned from part-inquest, part-obituary for Stuart Lancaster to assessing just where England go from here.
To sack or not to sack?
When Stuart Lancaster was appointed in 2012, he was to be the man who would steady an England team that was spiralling out of control. A frankly embarrassing showing at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, where problems on and off the pitch dominated the headlines, meant that the England hierarchy decided to rebuild from the top down.
“They looked lost under the weight of expectation, the glare of the Twickenham lights blinding rather than illuminating”
And yet it has not worked. England may well have generated a more professional atmosphere, but if anything it is one that just feels ever so slightly stale. The overwhelming feeling towards England is one of a team with undoubted quality, but lacking that ‘x-factor’ when it comes to the crunch games.
This reached its apogee against Australia. Too many times England were outgunned and outplayed. They looked lost under the weight of expectation, the glare of the Twickenham lights blinding rather than illuminating. We’ve been here before under Lancaster, however.
Turn the clocks back two years, and again we find ourselves reminded of a good side buckling under pressure. A win away from a first Six Nations Grand Slam in 10 years, a new era of success finally beckoned.
30-3 flattered England. Wales’ decimation was as absolute as Australia’s. Four runners-up finishes in the Six Nations in four years: for the nation with the biggest talent pool and biggest budget of any rugby nation in the world, let alone the northern hemisphere.
“If they choose to remove Stuart Lancaster and make a change, they must do so knowing that it means another couple of years of transition and less time to build a solid foundation for the next World Cup”
No one denies the servitude of Stuart Lancaster to helping the English side succeed. However, the RFU have to be decisive now. If they choose to remove Stuart Lancaster and make a change, they must do so knowing that it means another couple of years of transition and less time to build a solid foundation for the next World Cup, which must surely be the target.
Sir Clive Woodward was given another four years after the failings of 1999 and it worked. However, he wasn’t facing the humiliation of England’s worst World Cup in their own backyard. If the RFU do decide to stick with Lancaster, they do so knowing he will be under intense scrutiny for the majority of his tenure from now on. Saying that, if he stays, he should be given the next four years. Changing the management in a couple of years would scream mismanagement and indecision.
The Selection Process
England’s problems at centre were in evidence throughout the World Cup. Injury to Jonathan Joseph, forcing him to miss the game against Wales, left England having to call upon Sam Burgess, a man with three caps to his name. The fact that Burgess was picked ahead of Luther Burrell, himself an experienced centre, indicated desperation.
With players such as Steffan Armitage, playing in France, being left in the international wilderness, it is questionable as to whether England are truly utilising all of the talent available to them.
Building the England side around George Ford
“Having spent the last year building a team with Ford at the helm, Owen Farrell was chosen to play in the two biggest games of the tournament”
It is fair to say that George Ford had a stellar Six Nations earlier in the year. His kicking, both at the posts and in open play, was fantastic. However, what really shone through was his composure and skill with the ball in hand, being able to spot the right runner and prise open defences. Not since the playing days of Jonny Wilkinson had an England fly-half done so with such confidence.
Having spent the last year building a team with Ford at the helm, Owen Farrell was chosen to play in the two biggest games of the tournament. All it shows is fear, and a decision to play a defensive game, that ultimately exposed England’s true weaknesses in the scrum and the breakdown, where the game against Wales was truly lost.
The ultimately one-dimensional nature of Owen Farrell – who just isn’t as good as Ford with the ball in hand or as a tackler (as we found out against Australia with an inexplicable sin-bin with 10 minutes to go) – was further highlighted by Bernard Foley, Australia’s number 10. His two tries only served to indicate the gulf in class between the two teams on the day.
The core of young, talented players that has come through in the last 18 months, namely Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson, gives England hope for the future. What needs to be settled now is the aforementioned second centre position next to Joseph, and a pack that can stand up to the big guns of the big nations.
The hardest decision to make?
The other person who has ultimately become a symbol of the failures of this current England side, fairly or otherwise, is Chris Robshaw. The decision against Wales to kick for the corner and not for the posts when three points behind and five minutes to go was always going to be questioned, particularly when it failed. Personally, I thought it was a brave move, and what I was screaming at the television screen for him to do.
“The fact that there are still question marks over Robshaw’s quality as flanker suggests that now may just be the time for wholesale changes”
No one will deny that he has bled for the team and the country, and will take the failure as hard as anyone. However, for a man with over 40 caps as captain, the fact that there are still question marks over his quality as a flanker suggests that now may just be the time for wholesale changes.
Only time will tell…
For now, England still have a dead rubber against Uruguay to negotiate. What is interesting to note is that, just a day after the loss to Australia, another under-fire manager, who had the time and resources to build a winning team and failed, found himself jobless. He came as close as any to succeeding, and always poured his heart into the team. Like Brendan Rodgers, Stuart Lancaster may find out that his efforts just aren’t enough.
Image courtesy of ‘Maxwell Hamilton’ via flickr.