Stuart Lancaster was finally shown the exit yesterday after a dismal World Cup campaign on home soil tainted the image of English Rugby beyond the point of recovery.
While the search for his successor starts now, it is worth examining where it went so wrong for the England head coach.
Lancaster will be fully aware of the cliched fact he was in a “results business”. Despite four years of extensive preparation, England fell at the first hurdle during the World Cup, becoming the first host nation to fail to reach the quarter-finals.
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Defeats to Wales and Australia at Twickenham, on the biggest stage, could not be accepted, especially considering the former’s extensive injury list.
Prior to the World Cup, England’s results had been solid if not spectacular; four consecutive second place finishes in the Six Nations with only three wins against the Wallabies and New Zealand and none in six attempts against South Africa.
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Although the 38-21 win over New Zealand in 2012 will live long on the memory, under Lancaster, England failed to perform on a consistent basis, and the manner of their 33-13 defeat to Australia set alarm bells ringing.
The decisions to omit George Ford for Owen Farrell, and bring in league convert Sam Burgess for the injured Jonathan Joseph, always had the potential to be a career-defining moment for Lancaster.
Burgess handled his opposite man Jamie Roberts well, however, these conservative calls in the midfield nullified England’s own threat out wide. While their indiscipline on the night was more significant in the defeat, Lancaster had abandoned their former playing style at the crucial moment.
With Ford and Joseph to the fore, England had developed an expansive style of play during the Six Nations - scoring 55 points past France and 18 tries in five games. Though hindered by Joseph’s untimely injury, Lancaster’s decision to pick Burgess over the more creative Henry Slade, was a conservative call that showed an unwillingness to be bold when it mattered.
England’s midfield has been a constant source of change and uncertainty in the last four years, with inconsistency in both selection and performance rife. Lancaster stumbled upon the choice of Joseph at 13 due to a string of injuries back in February, whilst his repeated faith in Brad Barritt has seemed misplaced.
Luther Burrell’s omission in favour of Burgess allegedly caused disruption within the camp, whilst Slade’s lack of involvement until the dead rubber against Uruguay was a missed opportunity.
3. Overseas Policy
Amongst the lessons for England to learn from this World Cup, will be the importance of having a genuine open-side flanker.
World rugby has evolved rapidly in the last twelve months, led by Australia with their dual threat of Michael Hooper and David Pocock, and England’s failure to move with the times in the back-row left them regularly exposed.
Chris Robshaw is an international-class player, however, he has always been a 6.5, rather than a natural fetcher and England’s inability to alleviate pressure, win key penalties and create turnover ball was evident in both of their losses. All the while, former European Player of the Year Steffon Armitage sat watching at home in France.
Though Lancaster didn’t determine the policy, his refusal to select players based overseas has been shown up by Michael Cheika’s effective reintegration of Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, both of whom started in the World Cup final.
Armitage wouldn’t have won England the tournament, but following England’s 30-3 hammering in the Millennium Stadium two years ago, the warning signs were there that this team could be outplayed at the breakdown.
Excelling on the world stage requires players with world-class ability, more than a strong culture in the squad. Lancaster rejected an individual in a crucial position, who has been crucial in Toulon making history by winning three consecutive European cups.
4. Crumbling Culture
Following the debauchery of the last World Cup under Martin Johnson, Lancaster attached great importance to improving the culture around the England setup.
The insistence on making the players better men as well as better players is meaningless, however, when results don’t follow and the England camp is now in disarray.
With Burgess already back in rugby league, having contacted his former Rabbitohs coach the day after England’s defeat to Australia, kit-man Dave Tennison under investigation and Mike Brown stating that trust in the camp is “completely shot”, Lancaster has lost momentum from what was set to be his legacy.
Due to the average age of the squad and talent available, things aren’t as bleak as they seem for England but, fresh blood and fresh ideas are vital for this squad to overcome their World Cup disappointment and compete with the elite henceforth.
Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Graham Rowntree are unlikely to depart in as dignified a manner as their former leader, but a clean slate may just be what is required, depending on the replacement.
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