We Rusters have been talking amongst ourselves about our differing attitudes to our posts uploaded to the website, partly because of the editorial directive that there is no editorial directive upon any party ‘common line or approach’ – in other words, we are given complete freedom to operate as each of us would wish.
This is why I wish to begin my effort today by explaining my stance upon the 2015 Rugby World Cup – an event that ordinarily, given my position as a rugby correspondent, you might have been expecting me to be more ‘active’ than hitherto I have been.
The explanation is quite simple. For all sorts of reasons, coverage of the RWC in the UK media has been sufficiently extensive, I hesitate to say blanket, to warm the cockles of any rugby fan’s heart, let alone that of anyone associated with the staging of the tournament. Accordingly I took the early decision that I would comment only as and when I felt I could add something novel, preferably insightful, and/or likely to advance my reputation as a scribe whose scribblings upon the sport were worth reading.
Thus far – in other words, to the completion of the group stages – in my view the outpourings of the specialist national rugby union media professionals have been pretty good. Plainly much of the time the journos are being spoon-fed structured media opportunities, not least involving and occasional players, coaches and others being offered up for mass ‘interviews’, after which the stock approach is to regurgitate whatever has been said by the interviewee (whether it has been well-rehearsed or fired from the hip).
Thus, when there’s nothing more interested happening, a largish proportion of the RWC coverage is inevitably ‘advertorial’ [i.e. stuff contrived by the teams’ coaches and PR representatives and swallowed whole by reporters, as part of the way that – all insiders understand and accept – the media world goes around and around but which is never made overtly transparent to the public].
It’s why, when some ‘breaking news’ or seriously bad story hits the fan, just like any average member of the public, I sometimes get surprised by the directness, some might say relish and viciousness, with which reporters put awkward and/or unpalatable questions to (say) the coaches, e.g. in interview after interview, Stuart Lancaster being asked bluntly “Are you going to resign, or at least consider your position?” after England crashed out of the tournament.
However, the fact is that it’s simply a chance for them to get ‘nitty-gritty’, this after perhaps a week or more of just turning up every day and being fed standard ‘blah-blah-blah puffery’ by the team in question’s PR folk which – for any scribe worth his or her salt – tends to drive them up the wall and even prompt them to question why they’re wasting their talents having to behave like performing seals in a fashion that any half-literate 16 year old schoolchild taking his or her GCSEs could replicate in their sleep.
That’s my preamble or introduction concluded.
The thing is, when it comes to insightful points to lay before Rust readers, I am acutely conscious (and indeed relaxed about the fact) that I’m probably no better qualified to pronounce than anyone else who is a committed rugby fan and has gone down the pub. I’d never claim that my thoughts are superior or more valid than anyone else’s.
That admitted, there do seem to be certain things that most England rugby supporters seem to agree upon, viz. (in no particular order) that:
Stuart Lancaster is a thoroughly decent man who is totally committed to the cause and, ever since he first took over as caretaker England head coach after the disastrous 2011 RWC campaign in New Zealand, has always done his level best and left no stone unturned in his quest to develop as a coach and thereby produce a winning team.
However, Lancaster is also a ‘do it by numbers’ and conservative sort of chap – keen to please, reach consensus, build a strong team ethic etc. Maverick, confrontational and mercurial are the last adjectives that could ever be applied to him. To be blunt (as a head rugby coach of an international team) he’s a B-lister, an NCO in character, not ‘officer material’ in the accepted sense of the term. Oh, he can play the character of being a strong leader all right (he’s probably read how to do this in some highly-recommended US sports book), but he isn’t a natural member of the breed. Also, he’s not one of those who has ‘been there, done it’ chaps with a top-rank coaching CV as long as your arm – he’s learning as best he can on the job. The bottom line is that he will never be an A-lister.
Another of his failings is his devotion to inclusivity and teamwork in all things. He’s impressed by strong charismatic characters and probably wanted some on his coaching staff partly to demonstrate to the world that, in hiring them, the glow would reflect upon him (“Look at the people he’s got working for him, he must particularly be strong/confident himself even to consider taking such titans on”). Andy Farrell – particularly Andy Farrell – and Graham Rowntree are both seriously strong, tough, demanding and charismatic men.
The suspicion that Farrell influenced Lancaster’s weird decision to take Sam Burgess into the 31-man RWC squad – and then play him against Wales, alongside Farrell’s son Owen and Brad Barritt – is widely held (and well-founded, in my view).
The right thing to do now – irrespective of whether a review of England’s 2015 RWC campaign and the Lancaster regime generally takes place – is to get rid of Lancaster and his entire coaching team and hire in the top/best A-lister world-class head coach that the RFU can think of, irrespective of whether the individual concerned is currently unemployed, or employed elsewhere and/or expressing no interest, with money literally no object (the RFU is by some margin the richest of all the Unions). By all means ‘Bomber’ (Lancaster) should be kept on in some lower, perhaps largely ceremonial, role – say, ‘Head of Under-18 Player Development – which is better suited to his talents, such as they are.
The above is a broad-brush statement of what (I should estimate) 75% of England fans think and also now feel should happen. Whether it does happen or not, of course, is another thing altogether. There’s already a lobby growing in the media – including amongst some players, but then you’d expect that wouldn’t you, they’ve got a vested interest – that Lancaster should be given another chance, i.e. he should stay as head coach etc.
This would be a disaster. What England needs is a clear statement of intent that it is going to be serious about winning the 2019 RWC in Japan. At the very least that requires the immediate appointment of an A-lister head coach.
To my mind, the most telling aspect of all the analysis and news published in the national media over the weekend was the revelation that – having picked the Farrell/Burgess/Barritt midfield axis for the Wales game – the England coaches then arranged a full-on session behind closed doors in which those not selected (Ford, Slade, Goode etc.) were told to test their defensive qualities to the limit by going on the all-out attack. And that nine times of the ten plays that followed the ‘attackers’ scored, leaving the chosen midfield looking pretty flat-footed.
Both in terms of strategy and tactics, the midfield chosen by England for the Wales game made little logical sense. Alternatively, and more damningly, it could be argued (especially in hindsight!) that it demonstrated an extraordinary naivety on the part of the coaches.
There is no doubt in my mind that – now we are down to the quarter-final stage – the eight teams left in the tournament are all there on merit … and those that have already bitten the dust also deserve to have done so.
Let battle commence!