After such a promising start to his time as the England manager, it all ended on an autumn evening with a Australian thorn in the side. Stuart Lancaster can be credited with taking a team in turmoil, albeit one that reached the quarter finals in 2011, and creating an identity that has created more public interest in the team than I can remember.
So after overseeing the sides evolution into one which ended up putting 55 point on France in the final 6 nations game, what went wrong?
Lack of experienced players
It is said that a side requires 700-800 caps to win the world cup, Lancaster’s side contained approx. 470 caps. Yes this side has been together for a number of years, but what have they won? Second in four 6 nations, now test or series win in New Zealand, not beaten South Africa and at best the odd win against Australia. This side is still very young and has a lot of promise, but they need to start winning tournaments and beating the Super 15 sides.
This was particularly highlighted by the impact that Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell had on Australia. However, even if England had a similar rule Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon would not have been selected. I applaud the commitment to keeping the best English talent in England, but look at how both the aforementioned players have improved in their time away. Some players, Tom Wood and Tom Youngs, talked about “disharmony” if they were selected. This doesn’t ring true for me because then why bring Sam Burgess, Henry Slade, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie into the squad? Players with the same level of exposure to the squad over the last couple of years. Selecting Armitage and Abendanon might not have helped England get out of the group stages but I guess we will never know.
Selection of Sam Burgess
An unbelievable athlete and rugby league player. England were never going to get the best out of him in the centres. The main attribute of his game in league was the ability to have 40-50 involvements in the game without a drop in intensity. In the centres in international rugby you might get 10 on a very free flowing game. It came across like his selection was for his leadership ability. Yes the guy is a real warrior as anyone who supports the Rabbitohs will tell you, but surely the perceived lack of leadership should have been addressed before the world cup! This squad has been together for a number of years now and several players are ‘leaders’ for their clubs as well as U20 world champions. I just don’t buy it and it almost seems like his inclusion was agreed as part of his switch.
Lack of Experience at the top level
Stuart Lancaster is without doubt an exceptional coach, you just need to look at the work he was doing with the England Saxons and development area of the RFU. However, it takes experience at the highest echelons of the sport to succeed in the world cup pressure cooker. If you look at the teams in the semi-finals, all of the coaches, with the exception of Daniel Hourcade, have coached abroad or at international level already. You just can’t buy experience.
Change in Tactics
The difference in style of play at the world cup compared to the end of the 6 nations was astonishing! In a tournament where England ran in more tries than any other nation and were playing with real verve and swagger, they reverted to the stereotypical stick it up the jumper and keep it type sort of fair I thought we had left behind in yesteryear. Unfortunately not, why with pace and attacking talent like Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Mike Brown and Jonathan Joseph would you try and keep going round the corner without looking to bring them into play. It was turgid and dull. The obsession with keeping the ball in the scrum was dire and would only work if your scrum don’t back peddle. Fiji and Australia are two teams not renown for their scrummaging were pushing us around at a rate of knots.
Anyway the world cup is over and the search for a new England head coach begins. Hopefully Ian Ritchie can learn from the mistakes of the past and will work to appoint someone that will get up back to the top table of international rugby.