For those of us in the UK who love the sport of rugby union these are testing times. We are but days beyond what by general consent was a brilliant and exciting Rugby World Cup in which no home country reached the quarter final (knockout) stages and the Southern Hemisphere dominated.
Where are we going right now?
With the departure of the ill-fated Sam Burgess to rugby league recently filling the headlines and the RFU’s review of England’s pathetic RWC campaign presumably ongoing [as I type I know not when it is supposed to make its findings known], there is currently much speculation amongst those in the game and its spectators at all levels about the reasons for Burgess going; their impact, if any, upon the RFU’s review; and where should – or will – we go generally from here.
The omens are not so good, in my view.
The world seems undecided as to whether Burgess was let down – by Bath, his club, by Lancaster and England, or by the RFU generally – or has simply found the complexities of rugby union too much for him and has now run away at the first opportunity.
I was in the camp that held he had huge potential as a rugby union player and am a neutral on what exactly happened to make it all end in tears.
Maybe he was fast-tracked too soon. Maybe the fact England and Bath disagreed as to his best position on the field was a killer. What I do know – and I sought out opportunities in the hope of seeing progress – is that I never once saw him play a game of rugby union like a natural. He always looked like someone who was doing it by numbers (“What should I do now? Oh yes, A …” [and then he’d try to do that and when finished] …”… and what should I do now? …”).
I don’t think anyone would disagree that he was picked for England’s final 31-man squad contrary to Lancaster’s stated required principles of form and/or ‘he’d been there and proved it’. He simply hadn’t got either of those things going for him.
I have a bad feeling about Ian Ritchie’s RFU review of the RWC. They’ve made a hash of the public perception by their ‘insider’ choices for the panel, not least Ritchie himself.
The most recent word I’ve heard ‘on good authority’ is that Lancaster is likely to keep his job. I find this impossible to believe on any logical basis, especially now that the timing and apparent back-story to Burgess’s flight back to rugby league makes Lancaster look a complete prat. My suspicion is that Lancaster, an honourable man, has already offered his resignation but that (at the time of writing) has been told by the RFU review body to hold his fire on this until they’ve completed their deliberations. In my view Lancaster staying on – except perhaps in some sort of factotum role like Rob Andrew always has been – is Grade A madness.
Elsewhere – and in revealing this I must not pretend that its origins are anything more than idle chatter – I’ve heard from two separate sources that the atmosphere amongst the England players in their camp at Pennyhill Park was terrible. Things got so bad that (towards the end) even those on the outside of the match day squad, who were still pushing to get involved and show what they could do in England’s cause, were beginning to realise that actually this might be a good RWC to have ‘missed’. Pennyhill Park was apparently like a ‘gilded cage’ prison in which the players’ time was micro-managed. That would chime with the way that Lancaster works. He’s a stickler for detail and has read every sports theory book going, crackpot or otherwise, in his efforts to uncover every/any secret that might have assisted England’s fortunes on the field.
The faults – and responsibility – for England’s poor performance in the RWC lies squarely with the senior coaching staff. Logic demands that they should all be sacked and replaced.
As for where the game is going, we’ve had the old chestnut that ‘contracting the players centrally is the only way to ensure you have control of their playing, training and rest periods’ raised by various pundits. However, that horse bolted – probably permanently – right at the outset of the professional age in 1995. The interests of England Rugby and the Premiership clubs are completely incompatible. Proof of this pudding came this last weekend when The Rugby Paper ran an exclusive story that the British and Irish Lions recently made an indirect approach (via the RFU) to the Premiership clubs, requesting that they be allowed an extra week of preparation after arriving in New Zealand for their 2017 tour, and were abruptly rebuffed.
As things stand, they’ll be playing their first match on tour four days after their arrival. It’s crazy.
As for the Premiership itself, now trying to pick up on the RWC ‘feel good’ factor, I watched Saturday’s Northampton Saints v Saracens match on television. The pitch conditions weren’t great due to the weather, but the game was decidedly mediocre – plenty of effort, mind, but little inspiration and far too much aerial ping-pong kicking. It was so far removed from the entertainment and excitements of the later stages of the RWC as to be unrecognisable as the same sport.
Sadly I fear the worst for Northern Hemisphere rugby at the moment.