England bowed out of their own Rugby World Cup after a devastating loss to Australia, becoming the first host nation in the competition’s history not to make it through to the knockout stages, a much-publicised and unwanted title. The blame has been spread evenly through the media, with head coach Stuart Lancaster, backs coach Andy Farrell and the team itself all taking flak for their respective roles in their demise. But does the blame really lie with any particular person or group? And if so, who deserves to shoulder the blame of an entire nation? Alex Plimmer looks into the reasons behind England’s poor showing this autumn.
Dropping Burrell was a step backwards
The Six Nations in 2014/15 saw the birth of a seemingly new England, an attacking team who could run in tries from all angles and positions (18 in 5 games). Whilst they were disappointed to finish second behind Ireland, thanks to a slightly inferior points difference, it had been a long time since the country had seen a side with such flair and offensive verve, led by outside centre Jonathan Joseph.
Fast-forward 6 months and England are facing a meltdown. A desperately disappointing three point defeat to Wales and a calamitous 33-13 rout from Australia have left the nation wondering where it all went wrong and calling for Stuart Lancaster’s head. But when you look at the team sheets for each match from March to September, there doesn’t appear to be much difference. The only significant change has been to bring in Brad Barritt ahead of Luther Burrell.
Burrell was criticised during the Six Nations for performances seemingly lacking in defensive steel and the try-scoring form he had shown the previous year. It seemed a logical, if very brave, decision from Lancaster to drop Burrell from his World Cup squad in favour of the defensive work rate of Barritt and the untried talents of Sam Burgess and Henry Slade. It was assumed that Burrell would be too much of a defensive liability in a pool including Australia and Wales.
Whilst this may be true, the fact is that Burrell provided the perfect foil for the quick feet of Joseph and Anthony Watson outside him. He played excellent roles as a dummy runner, working with fly-half George Ford’s delayed passes to set Joseph free into the gaps created. A powerful runner, Burrell also breaks the gain line almost every time, whether running on to the ball at pace or from a standing start.
A few ostensibly indifferent personal performances in the Six Nations in fact created the base for his country’s thrilling attacking play, but tragically cost him his World Cup place. How different the pool could’ve looked with Burrell at 12 is unclear, but you can bet it would have at least been a more entertaining ride for England fans.
England’s set pieces are a mess
Aside from Jonathon Joseph, the line-out was the other lynchpin of England’s success in the Six Nations. Dylan Hartley’s accurate throwing and power at the scrum were much missed in the World Cup, however, as the line-out continually let them down at crucial moments and swung the momentum towards the other team. Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury are fantastic workhorses in open play, but their set piece play needs considerable improvements if England are to kick on next year.
A once formidable scrum was also the poorer for Hartley’s absence, as England struggled to gain their usual stranglehold on the opposition forwards. Joe Marler and Dan Cole have had average tournaments and so far the Wales and Australia matches have only gone to show that replacements Mako Vunipola and Kieran Brookes are not world-class scrummagers and will not make a substantial impression on the game.
Even if it is not my place to argue with Lancaster’s ruling on off-field incidents, he must at least make sure that his back-ups are up to the task. Hartley’s presence was greatly missed in the pack.
Why pick Slade?
Henry Slade is a fantastic prospect for the future and looks comfortable at 10, 12 and 13, a rare quality for a player so young. His debut against France showed his clas
s and his lack of intimidation by the big occasion. Slade was an ideal pick in many ways for Stuart Lancaster: young, fearless, hard-working, versatile. He fits the bill as Lancaster’s ideal player and giving him the World Cup experience would’ve been a fantastic idea. If he had played.
After the despair of the defeat by Wales, many suggested that England should play the territory game against Australia, not allowing their backs to run at them and cause issues. As a natural fly-half, Slade has a well-honed kicking game, which he can use from centre as well. Yet, Lancaster stuck with the safe option of Barritt and Joseph – a fair choice, it must be said. But the inclusion of the frankly one-dimensional Sam Burgess on the bench was baffling. More powerful in attack than Barritt, but more defensively naïve, Burgess brought nothing to the table that Australia would not be ready for. Slade, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity. Equipped with a completely different skillset to the others, he would’ve brought a new dimension to England’s play. Playing him would have been a risk, certainly, but risky is better than predictable – an apt word to describe England’s entire campaign.
I truly believe that Stuart Lancaster’s tenure as England coach can, without a doubt, be classed as a success, but their performance this September can only be described as shambolic. It showed a lack of ambition, a lack of nous and an unbearable predictability. It showed the need for a new direction, which will have to be undertaken by someone other than Stuart Lancaster. It’s been a good journey, but he has to go.