As a neutral rugby supporter, watching England lose to Australia on Saturday night was painful and difficult. To crash out of your own world cup so spectacularly will have sent shockwaves throughout the English rugby community a la the 2011 World Cup debacle. The RFU are now going to have to seriously assess whether or not Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree are the right men to lead England through to the next world cup in Japan in four years time. While the players must accept some of the responsibility for the calamity on the pitch on Saturday night, in truth it comes down the coaches, specifically the head coach. While there is no denying that this was one of the toughest ever RWC pools in history, England had at their disposal enough talent to get out of this group they were playing at home. Those two factors, combined with Wales’ plethora of injuries to key players before and during the tournament, meant that they would have been backed by most to get out of the group. So why then didn’t they?
Selection. Picking the right team is the critical aspect of the head coach’s role. International teams have an abundance of professional coaches for specialist parts of the game i.e. scrum coach, kicking coach etc. The head coach’s role is to pick the correct team to win at the weekend and to determine what style of play he wants his team to play. Lancaster got this wrong over the last two weeks with a number of key selections backfiring. The main one being the decision to drop George Ford for the Welsh game, when he had done little wrong and had orchestrated England’s excellent attacking play during the Six nations, in favour of the dependable but limited Owen Farrell. While Farrell (Owen) is certainly not to blame for England’s early exit, the lack of attacking nous in England’s last two games hindered them greatly. In their last two games against Wales and Australia, England scored two tries, one a piece in each game and neither of them were created by Farrell. While it may seem harsh to single out Farrell, England’s attack looked much better when Ford came on against Australia and it was his long miss pass to Joe Launchbury that created the try for the impressive Anthony Watson. In the aftermath of Saturday, most pundits now agree that Farrell over Ford was the wrong decision and cost England dearly.
That selection wasn’t the only one which Lancaster got wrong. When Johnny May went off injured on Saturday, the lack of a back three replacement on the bench hurt England badly. Jonathan Joseph, one of England’s most attack minded players and their only natural attacking centre was shifted to the wing to accommodate Sam Burgess, a makeshift centre who looked far more impressive at 6 for Bath throughout the season. Joseph going to the wing meant that he saw less of the ball when what England needed most, trailing 17-6 at this stage, was for him to be on the ball creating opportunities. A specialist back three player such as Jack Nowell should have been on the bench as a direct replacement for May, which would have meant Joseph could stay where he was, thus minimising disruption to the starting backline. Burgess offered little when he came on, bar high tackling Michael Hooper which he has now been cited for. Hardly the big game temperament or impact sub Lancaster had hoped for.
You could also make the case that the exclusion of foreign based players such as Steffon Armitage and Nick Abendanon was naive of Lancaster and co., but that was the policy of the RFU and one that was made clear some time ago. Would they have even made a difference on Saturday? Armitage would no doubt have helped at the breakdown where David Pocock was rampant, but would he have stopped a 20 point drubbing? Definitely not.
English rugby will recover from this. They have the resources, they have the supporters (maybe a few angry ones), but most importantly they have an abundance of young talent. The likes of Watson, Ford, Slade, Itoje, Vunipola etc are all players who will form the backbone of a potentially excellent England side for the next few years. However, without the right man selecting the right players, this England side may never reach its full potential. Stuart Lancaster, if he learns from this World cup, could still be the man to lead them. However, this was his big chance, a home world cup, and unfortunately for him, it may be too late.