Decisions, decisions

The English media have been quick to call for Lancaster to step aside as England coach. The following looks at the reasons why these calls are justified.

75 minutes on the clock, South African scrum not going to plan. Duane Vermeulen peels off the back, commits two defenders, throws a wonderful reverse offload to Fourie du Preez and puts him through in the corner to break Welsh hearts. With the potential of a World Cup exit staring the Boks in the face, what was there for all to see was world-class decision-making, executed under the highest pressure. On such fine margins, games can be won and lost, careers made or broken. 

As the business end of the Rugby World Cup 2015 unravels, the dust has just about settled on England’s ill-fated campaign. Attentions are starting to divert towards the hemisphere debate, as it rears its ugly head once again.

For English rugby, it is a time for harsh reflection. We now know that the RFU are undecided on the make-up of the review panel, allowing the ‘ifs’ and the ‘buts’ of this campaign to be mulled over and debated over in pubs up-and-down the country until world champions are crowned on 31st October.

The English media love a scapegoat. It has been the same as long as I can remember across all sports. Euro ’96, Southgate. France ’98, Beckham. Japan 2002, Seamen. Germany 2006, Rooney. RWC 2011, Martin Johnson. Ashes 2014, Pietersen. The media love to build up a hero, only to shoot them down at the earliest opportunity. On this occasion, it’s Lancaster. On this occasion, though, I have to agree with them.

I have long been a fan of Stuart Lancaster. He’s a proud and principled Englishman who inherited a side in a state of disciplinary disarray, after an embarrassing 2011 World Cup campaign better known for its off-pitch antics rather than on-pitch heroics. I think I was not alone in really wanting him to succeed.

During his tenure, England has been consistent in the Six Nations. Runners-up in all of the four tournaments he has overseen. Yet, comparing his win ratio to previous England coaches, Lancaster (61%) is only marginally better than much-criticised predecessors Martin Johnson (55%) and Brian Ashton (55%), and not as close as many would like to Sir Clive Woodward (71%).

Leading into a home world cup, though, one could be forgiven for giving Lancaster the benefit of the doubt. He seemed to have the coaching staff and dressing room behind him and despite a particularly tough pool, a schedule and home advantage that favoured the England team. The latter should have ensured progression through to the knockout stages of a home world cup. Not to mention depleted opponents in Wales with an ever-increasing injury list.

It seems an obvious thing to say, but selection will define you as a coach. It was what Woodward did so well during his time at the helm. He made difficult selections at the right time, picked a balanced team full of leaders and that assured decision-making filtered down to those players at critical moments on the pitch.

27th August, 2015 – alarm bells start ringing.

The 31-man squad was announced, and had me concerned. The selection of Sam Burgess ahead of Luther Burrell was a staggering one. Not only had Burrell been an ever-present for the previous two Six Nations tournaments, Burgess had been playing at blind-side flanker for his club side Bath. Burrell’s omission meant England would start the tournament without a recognized alternative in the number 12 jersey to Brad Barritt – all the more baffling as Barritt had last played for England in the 2014 Autumn internationals. It also meant England would almost certainly start the game against Fiji with an untried midfield.

As well as Burrell’s omission, the decision to leave out bad-boy Dylan Hartley, who would have missed the first game due to indiscipline, meant 66 caps worth of experience were left at home. Telling in an otherwise hugely inexperienced squad. Instead, Rob Webber, who by the end of the season wasn’t making the starting XV for his club side, got the nod in the 31.

Finally, the stubborn exclusion of players plying their trade in France resulted in England were without a recognised open-side in the ranks. ‘Exceptional circumstances’ Lancaster said… A home world cup on which ones reputation and career will be judged, and in which the team was guaranteed to face two of the world’s best back rows in Australia and Wales. Surely that’s as exceptional as it gets.

Luther Burrell 

These calls were uncharacteristically bold from Lancaster (notably the selection of Burgess over Burrell), from whom fans had become used to consistency and continuity in his selections. Perhaps the pressure of a home world cup was getting to him…

In spite of the above, the 15 that took to the field against Fiji was about as good as we could have hoped for. However, following that game came another episode of uncharacteristic hastiness from Lancaster. Wholesale changes in the midfield for the game against Wales, despite a bonus point victory against the Fijians.

While I didn’t agree with the combination of Burgess and Barritt in the centres, I could see the logic (if a little negative) in pairing them and nullifying the power game of the Welsh. What was of greater concern, however, was the bench selection. The omission of Henry Slade (or even Jack Nowell) from the substitues meant that England had no game-changers in the back-line. No way to change things up. In picking Alex Goode on the bench, England had a kicking full-back to sit alongside a kicking scrum-half, even though right winger Anthony Watson could cover 15 anyway. It seemed that the occasion had got to Lancaster, and once again, his selection left a lot to be desired.

The final nail in the Englishman’s coffin came an hour into that game, with England 10 points in front and the match there to be closed-out. The substitutions made at the 60 minute mark were pre-determined, naïve and outright ignorant. George Ford is a fantastic footballer and playmaker, but 10 points in front against a depleted Welsh side is not the time to bring him on. For the first hour, England’s back-line defence was unbreakable. It should not have been changed.

Biggar victory 

Against Australia, we were quite frankly outplayed, outclassed, and comfortably outscored. Sometimes that happens in sport and England simply had to doff their cap in the opposition’s direction. One failing that was abundantly clear, however, was the gulf in class between the two back-rows on show. That selection issue again…

Unlike the English media, I am not going for just the one scapegoat. Lancaster is not the only one to blame. Robshaw too must depart. In fact, naming Robshaw as his captain could be argued as Lancaster’s biggest mistake of all. Perhaps even Rob Andrew should step aside too. Starting in August, high-pressure decisions weren’t made correctly, and that seemed to have a serious impact on team morale and subsequent success.

With all Northern hemisphere sides now out of the tournament, ‘three-point-gate’ doesn’t seem to hurt quite as much. With all four of the quarter-finals played, the realist within me does also asks ‘would we have even stood a chance against those All Blacks?

Yet, as a result of England’s premature exit, one stat does make for slightly damning reading. Lancaster’s win ratio against the top five competitor nations – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Ireland and Wales – is a meager 36%.

I am always proud to wear the rose, but now is the time for some gardening to be done. There is huge talent in the England squad and a slight reshuffle will do the team the world of good to move on from this tournament. If decision-making improves and selections are made properly for the upcoming Six Nations, England should have a real chance.

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