By David de Winter – Sports Editor
The England Rugby team and the RFU would rather forget the last two months ever happened. Firstly, the national side was eliminated from the Rugby World Cup at the group stages, the only host nation to do so in the competition’s history. Next, they sacked the coach Stuart Lancaster, the man they appointed to lead the team to glory at the World Cup. Then, rugby league convert Sam Burgess, who had only started playing the game 11 months previously, announced that he was heading back to the 13-man code to play for his old team South Sydney Rabbitohs in Australia’s NRL competition. Lastly, and most bizarrely, it emerged that long-serving kit man Dave Tennison had given players dodgy investment advice in the lead up to the tournament, leading to several players losing a significant amount of money. All of which has made the national set-up and the RFU the laughing stock of the rugby world.
After all the justified negative attention, the bigwigs at Twickenham moved hastily after Lancaster’s departure to install Eddie Jones, former Australia coach and the man who masterminded Japan’s exhilarating performances at the recent World Cup, as the new head coach of the national team. Jones was apparently the RFU’s preferred appointment because of his extensive experience of international rugby. But, despite a somewhat chequered coaching record, is he the right man to restore England to its former glories?
Japan, alongside New Zealand and Argentina, played the most thrilling attacking rugby of the World Cup. A lot of credit must go to Jones for not only instilling such a culture in the side, but also for coaching and training the Japanese players to execute the necessary skills, no mean feat for a team outside the traditional rugby powerhouses. Will he be able to replicate that success with England though?
In recent times I have witnessed three superb England attacking performances: the 38-21 defeat of New Zealand at Twickenham in late 2012, the 51-26 victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires in June 2013 and the amazing 55-35 victory over France in the 2015 Six Nations. That’s three out of 46 matches since Lancaster took charge. It not only shows the possible shortcomings of Lancaster as a coach but also highlights the more worrying fact that England are incapable of playing free-flowing attacking rugby, the likes of which we saw in abundance from the SANZAR nations at the World Cup.
The gap between the southern hemisphere nations and their northern counterparts (highlighted in a previous article here: The North/South divide – Hemispheres apart) is so wide that I cannot see them competing at the same level anytime soon because a) the skill-set of the current players is not good enough and b) England’s rugby culture is traditionally based upon a strong set-piece and accurate kicking, not line-breaks and off-loads. Due to the power the clubs have over the game, the chances of b) changing are slim and thus the national team will suffer, just as has happened in France. Even with Jones’ appointment he will only get the players together for probably 10/11 weeks per year. Is that enough for a radical overhaul of the playing culture?
Jones also needs to move away from the modern obsession with size. Defences are so good these days that players aren’t going to bulldoze through them; witness the ineffectiveness of Mathieu Bastareaud at the World Cup. Shane Williams was only 5ft 7in but almost always broke the gain line.
Skill, handling and elusive running are what unlocks defences and scores tries, not predictable up-you-jumper rugby. The most talented players with ball in hand must therefore be given a chance to showcase their talents, such as: Christian Wade, Eastmond, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Danny Cipriani and Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson.
What of the Sam Burgess debacle? He was treated despicably by certain sections of the press and ex-players, but ultimately he should never have been put in the situation he was. To expect the man to be an international class player within 12 months is ludicrous and throwing Burgess into the squad at the expense of the likes of Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond was a sign of desperation. Lancaster must take the blame for this and Burgess’ subsequent departure from the sport; he put his faith in the former Bath player and then didn’t support him when he most needed it.
I personally think that Sam Burgess, with time (maybe another two or three years), could have become a real success in rugby union, either as a centre in the Sonny Bill Williams mould, or as a blindside flanker – where his club coach Mike Ford thought he was best suited (possibly like the tough-tackling former French number 6, Serge Betsen). However, we will never know due to the failings of certain people around him and, unfortunately, a real talent has been lost.
One more thing: RIP Jonah Lomu – a true great.