Two home defeats, conspiracies, factions and an imminent Lancasterian deposition. This is not the start of a narrative on the Wars of the Roses, this is in fact the amount of turmoil that surrounds English rugby.
So why is English rugby breaking down? England are the first host nation in the history of rugby to be knocked out of the pool stages of a World Cup. England were in an unlucky position from the start as they were grouped with Australia and Wales in what was termed the ‘Pool of Death’.
Even so, uncertain form and numerous injuries in the Welsh squad meant that England were favourites – alongside Australia – to progress to the next stages.
In both of these games England were playing in their fortress of Twickenham, a place where Wales find it hard to win and where England has won 13 times out of 23 against Australia. So for a nation who went into this contest full of confidence that this was “their year to bring it home”, this competition turned into the biggest humiliation in English rugby since the defeat against France in 2011.
Due to England’s early exit, factions have formed within the RFU: Pro-Lancaster and against. Pundits and players including Matt Dawson have said that the whole system needs to change, specifically, that Lancaster needs to go because he has lost on the international stage. Lancaster’s dismal record as England’s coach cannot be ignored – lost championships, a tenure that has seen England drop to fifth in the world rankings and now this World Cup. Lancaster has, as Dawson says, “not proven himself at international level”.
However, England’s players and coaches, such as Andy Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, have declared their support for Lancaster by stating that “he has done marvellous things” and that he “deserves another shot”. The RFU executive Ian Ritchie also interjected and said that there will be “no hasty decision” concerning Lancaster’s position, with the immediate inference that there will be a decision. In the mean-time the stability of the England camp is now shattered.
Conspiracy theories and rumours surrounding team selection are also darkening the storm clouds over English rugby. The theory is that the English backs coach Andy Farrell and not Lancaster was deciding on team selections and game plans. This has been ferociously denied by players and Farrell. However, even with Farrell’s denial, there are reasons to believe the rumours.
Firstly, the dilemma of Owen Farrell or George Ford at fly half. Farrell is a first class goal kicker, has experience and is not scared of physical confrontation. Ford has imagination which allows him to out-manoeuvre his rivals and has the ability to play flat to the gain line. Farrell was selected even though he is not always the calm and collected number 10 that Ford is, with Farrell’s yellow card against Australia one of many incidences of uncontrollable temperament. This went against Dawson’s endorsement of Ford’s selection and Martin Johnsons’ advice of selecting Ford and basing the backs around him.
The problem is that Farrell is Andy Farrell’s son. Lancaster is not going to make a decision between two backs without the input of the backs coach. So Andy Farrell does have a significant amount of input in the selection process. Regardless of being a professional coach, it is unlikely he will be able to completely put aside paternal bias if the choice for starting fly half is between your child and someone else. The rumours may be false but there is never smoke without a fire.
English rugby, with its conspiracies, internal conflicts and series of embarrassing defeats is reminiscent of a medieval epic, however this time, a change of king or coach is not going to solve everything. Only time will tell whether English rugby can weather the fallout of this World Cup.
Image courtesy of Keith Allison