It’s said that dogs look like their owners, or perhaps it’s vice-versa, but it also rings true for the skippers chosen to carry forth the plans of the head coach onto the rugby field.
Having looked at some of the marked differences between the attitudes and approaches embodied by the early regime of Eddie Jones and that of Stuart Lancaster, it makes sense to see how they compare with their predecessors in search of success.
If we look back through the years since England’s last notable success, the 2003 victory at the Rugby World Cup, we can gain a little insight into how the coaches had their mantra echoed on the field by their generals in charge.
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Let’s look immediately after the 2003 World Cup, Clive Woodward was set to continue but with a falling out with the RFU he chose to leave and Andy Robinson was the man put in charge for the lead up to the next World Cup.
Robinson, a passionate Englishman attempted to bring on the next generation of players from the victorious campaign under Woodward. As is often the case when the successor steps up from a lesser role to the top-job, this stewardship became something of a faint echo of that which had gone before, with Robinson’s undoubted enthusiasm not being enough of a personal mark on the players to draw out a new set of world beaters.
He was also not helped in his cause by a huge turnover of players and the distinct lack of a certain Jonny Wilkinson who was injured almost continuously for four years between World Cups.
He utilised the captaincy of Martin Corry most often during this period who would perhaps be the fore-runner to Chris Robshaw in being an undoubted workhorse, perhaps not the most talented player to ever take the field and was not ever allowed to forget this by the commentators of the time.
With a lack of results to impress his employers, Robinson stood down to clear a path for Brian Ashton to take up the reigns as England’s head couch. Ashton was in charge in the build-up and through the 2007 RWC – much more of a maverick coach who believed in the players making the decisions on the field as it panned out – he had a range of skippers from Phil Vickery to Jason Robinson, indicating his belief that any of his players should be suitable to lead, the responsibility was from the group themselves, rather than from the management.
Ashton was criticised after the by some of his former charges in being rather too laissez-faire in his approach to game management and training – so much so that it was claimed the senior players had a crisis meeting after their 36-0 thrashing by South Africa to decide on their approach as they were lacking one from Ashton.
The player-power attitude seemed to work as England fought their way to the final of the tournament and were it not for the paint from a blade of grass on Mark Cueto’s boot, were denied by South Africa.
Who should take credit for that is a fuzzy issue – you could argue that Ashton created the atmosphere for the players to take charge and lead themselves, but then you could say he was fortunate to have a raft of players with huge experience (some of which had been brought out
of retirement) to pick up the pieces of what would otherwise have been a disastrous campaign.
Stepping into the spotlight after Ashton moved on, Martin Johnson was the man chosen to reverse England’s waning fortunes. The RFU hoped that the World Cup winning captain would act as a figurehead to inspire the team to greatness, despite his lack of coaching experience.
Johnson would choose (current England forwards coach) Steve Borthwick as his skipper. As with Corry, he was a dogged, dependable captain, harking back to Johnson’s own characteristics of being a man of action rather than words, though undoubtedly less of a menacing presence on the field than Johnno in his prime.
Perhaps the fact that Johnson’s reign came too close on the heels of his own playing career was his undoing as he would leave his players, (including some former team-mates) a little too much slack in the line in their behaviour, which was exposed to the harsh media spotlight of the World Cup, none more so than his occasional captain Mike Tindall, having just married into the Royal Family, adding fuel to the tabloid fire.
From the end of the tournament with ferry-leaping/dwarf tossing headlines, apart from the disappointing showing at the field of play itself, Johnson fell on his own sword to clear the decks for Lancaster.
Lancaster sought to bring things back down to earth and his embodiment of industry was Chris Robshaw. He was, as previously discussed, seen as a conservative choice but with a lack of other
viable options, perhaps the best of an inexperienced bunch.
Of course, there are other instances, symptoms and reasons behind the rollercoaster ride experienced by all regarding England’s rugby fortunes, but what is obvious is the need for one regime to distance itself from the previous which is perhaps why Lancaster’s regime may prove itself to be the most fruitful (for Eddie Jones that is) as he ratcheted up the control on the players to such an extent that even a slight relaxation on the stringent discipline seems to instil a sense of trust and loyalty to the players of the current crop.
The elephant in the room of all of the above, an issue which would merit its own examination in future, is that the holders of the purse-strings for the coaches, and therefore the direction of England rugby - AKA the RFU - were anything but successful in finding a common thread of success.
The fall-out of the fractured relationship with Clive Woodward meant that any kind of future planning was negated (if it was ever there in the first place) meaning that the next man was always landed deep in the mire.
There is little science that can be pointed to when appointing a new coach (just ask Manchester United!), but it does appear that there is still a hangover from the amateur days within the ethos of decision-making by the RFU – which organisation in the commercial world would grant a new contract to a part-time consultant without awaiting the results of his endeavours? (Lancaster’s contract was renewed for four years ahead of the 2015 tournament).
Ultimately, the people who sign the cheques and position the head coaches must be held to account as much as the coaches themselves. No one has a crystal ball and hindsight is only ever in 20-20 vision, but could it be now that finally, England have the right man in charge of the team at the right time?