Unless I have managed to cross some wires somewhere, this week’s biggest rugby union development – certainly for England fans – will be the announcement of new head coach Eddie Jones’ first Elite Player Squad containing those players from which he will select his teams for the 2016 Six Nations fixtures beginning next month.
Its composition has been an object of keen speculation ever since England achieved an unwanted record last autumn by becoming the first host nation in history to crash out of a Rugby World Cup before the knockout stage. The fall-out from England’s 2015 RWC campaign – the departure of Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff – was inevitable, necessary and welcome. In any organisation or walk of life, if you establish an executive structure, set it up with a sizeable budget and (within reason) give it carte blanche to do whatever is required to achieve a set goal … and it then fails abjectly to perform … then it is only to be expected, both in terms of the ‘survival of the fittest’ law of the human jungle and in returning all systems to ‘default’ and ‘clearing the hard drive – the better to begin setting sail upon a new journey – that those in charge get the bullet.
The blame for the complications that arose in the process – and at least 80% of the Everest-sized media gush that accompanied it – lie squarely at the door of the RFU and its chief executive Ian Ritchie. It’s noteworthy how often sports administrators both high and low have the capacity to mess things up, irrespective of their quality and career background. It’s almost as if, when it comes to getting involved in sport, all logic, rationality and (streetwise) common sense is automatically parked at the door.
Though I fear I’m doing an impression of re-heating the Christmas turkey dinner left-overs in stating it, in the run-up to the 2015 RWC Mr Ritchie created a massive (own goal) ‘hostage to fortune’ for himself and the RFU by successively (1) rewarding the Lancaster regime, which thus far had delivered not a single Six Nations championship during its tenure, with four-year contract extensions through to the 2019 RWC six months before the 2015 tournament had even begun; and then (2) bravely announcing on the eve of the 2015 tournament that he expected England to win and that – if we didn’t – as chief executive he would ‘carry the can’.
Which in the event, of course, he then didn’t.
Which semi-intelligent supremo of anything would renew a regime’s contract on the eve of a four-year cycle’s climax taking them right through to the climax of the one following four years later? Well, unless perhaps he’s either incompetent, temporarily lost all powers of reason and/or (out of misguided loyalty to the regime’s members?) has deliberately chosen to commit his organisation to make a ‘comfortable’ pension-providing pay-off to them in the event of their short-term failure.
Furthermore – addressing the only other possible alternative(?) – i.e. if you have decided to take a considered long-term view (and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in doing so) that England’s next best chance of winning a RWC was going to be in 2019, why then go out and boldly proclaim in public that you expect to win the 2015 tournament, plus that – if you don’t – you personally are going to fall upon your sword?
To expand upon the line that there would have been nothing wrong in taking a long-term view, there was received statistical opinion doing the rounds a year or more ago that you need a minimum of 500 international caps within an international playing squad (i.e. that degree of experience) to have a serious chance of winning an RWC. At the time the 2105 England RWC squad had about 400. In comparison, in some games of the 2015 RWC the New Zealand match day squad boasted over 1,000.
It’s all theory, of course, but there may be something to it. If England had been lucky enough – as some probably felt they were – to have enough youngsters in its 2015 RWC squad good and durable enough to be around for the next tournament four years later, collectively they could quite easily have amassed closer to say 650 caps by then, i.e. well beyond the 500 supposed minimum necessary for success.
However, I suppose vanity and PR advisers won the day and Mr Ritchie took the view that it would be simply inappropriate for him to state the truth (viz. “We’ll do our very best in 2015, of course, but the more likely reality is that we’re going to have a better chance in 2019”). Had he done so, if you think about it, ironically it would also have gone some way to justify his extraordinary move in renewing the Lancaster regime’s contracts through to 2019 (“In our view Stuart and his coaching team are the right ones for the job, which is why we’re renewing their contracts through to 2019”).
Anyway, now we have Eddie Jones – and hopefully a new broom and a fresh start.
Ever since England’s ignominious exit from the 2015 RWC, every England rugby fan – and most particularly both every rugby journalist and every Aviva Premiership club head coach in the country – has been airing his or her views ad nauseam as to why their favourite players should be in the 2016 Six Nations squad.
I have little doubt that in all over 120 players must have been recommended by one expert – or his amateur armchair equivalent – or another.
In the past fortnight we have all been having a go at naming our personal preferred squads. We cannot all be right. In fact I’d go further – a penny to a pound says at least 95% of us are going to be wrong.
Here’s a link to an article on the subject by Robert Kitson – an eminently worthy rugby scribe in my book – that appears today upon the website of – THE GUARDIAN
One thing I know.
Whenever a national team is announced in rugby – and indeed I suspect in any sport – the one thing you can guarantee afterwards is a sense of anti-climax. Why? Because the number of surprise or ‘left field’ selections will be limited to one or two.
I’d be more than happy to eat my Easter bonnet if I’m wrong, but you watch …