Not since the World Cup quarter final defeat to France in 2011 has rugby union gone head to head with Premier League (and other) football with it’s level of coverage n the media.
From what I have seen the tournament has been a success in terms of the organisation and spectator involvement, both inside the grounds and at the popular “fanzones”,and the only missing link has been a successful tilt at the trophy by England, who bow out on Saturday night at the Etihad Stadium against Uruguay. A thumping win will not solve what has gone before.
In tournaments, sometimes the order of matches can be decisive. If – such a small word, yet so important – England had beaten Wales and then lost to Australia, the Uruguay match would have been their insurance policy for a quarter final place. The Wales defeat risked loading a judgement on the whole of Stuart Lancaster’s reign on beating a none-too-shabby Australian team, a game where England creaked and finally succumbed without ever being in front.
Experienced watchers from the written media, long serving broadcasters and former players have all offered – and been asked for – views on an opportunity which has slipped through England’s fingers. As one pundit put it, the best way to engage large numbers of people with the game is not through hours and hours of community effort but to at least reach the final of your home World Cup.
I have heard a lot of the radio output surrounding the tournament, and the analysis has been generally excellent. Different opinions were offered and debated until it came to the wake of the defeat to Australia, when common ground became the norm. England had become cautious, and not driven through with tactics which had set the squad up for the tournament. Selections had become curious, Stuart Lancaster even admitting he didn’t know how George Ford would react to being dropped after the win over Fiji, and then there was the Sam Burgess factor.
It had all rather smacked of another Rugby League midfield convert, Henry Paul, being rushed through the system, and seasoned rugby followers will know what happened there. Luther Burrell’s thoughts at this point would be interesting as England prepare to face Uruguay with Burgess nowhere to be seen in the match day squad..
Never mind though. There will be a full review. On the evidence so far, everyone is trying to protect their own interests. Andy Farrell has backed the work done by Lancaster, who he referred to as “the hardest working and proudest Englishman he had ever met”, and there seems little doubt that on a personal level Lancaster has built a lot of credit in the bank but you wonder if he is man for the BBC (bibs, balls and cones) rather than the top job. As one former player and coach said to me, Lancaster in his opinion was not a visionary, but someone more suited to delivering a vision seen in the eye of someone else.
He may not get that opportunity if the media snowball tagged “not good enough” gathers any more volume. Understandably, the question of rewarding failure has been raised. Retention of a coaching team that delivered England’s worst World Cup performance – and on home soil – would look very odd, but the RFU thinking has taken some left-field routes before.
Dean Ryan, now Director of Rugby at Worcester and with previous experience in a similar role at Gloucester, suggested that not only had England’s coaching credibility hit the buffers, but also the stock of the people appointing those coaches. RFU Chief Executive Ian Ritchie fronted up with Lancaster after the Australia defeat, but he should not be absolved from accountability either.
There is little doubt that the team have sunk everything they had into trying to win the tournament, but as supporters of two Premier League football teams – Newcastle United and Liverpool – will tell you, that alone is not enough.
Both recently have had cause to question their management too. They claim boundless passion for their clubs, and demand some empathy with the area from the players they watch, yet in reality all those tens of thousands of fans want is a manager who is a smart thinker, gets things done and delivers a winning team. How many of those boxes Jurgen Klopp can tick Liverpool fans are about to find out.
While Klopp is for the future at Anfield, Lancaster’s – despite a contract through to the next World Cup – is fairly and squarely under the microscope. For the Uruguay match, he has thrown chances to players not previously seen in the tournament. Nowell and Slade, amongst others, must try and lift the mood somewhat.
It may be his last throw of the dice as the real digging into why England failed will then begin – or will it ? Lancaster could take any decision over his own role out of the RFU’s hands by offering his resignation. It would be honourable, but for any review to have value surely that has to be carefully thought through before another permanent appointment is made.
For the moment, however, there is no vacancy. One last chance for Lancaster to fly with his England team before, you suspect, he bombs – or is bombed – out.
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