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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'The RFU need to give the English public some assurance that things can get better'

Mick Cleary: 'The RFU need to give the English public some assurance that things can get better'
7 months ago

Who is this before us? England coming through French passport control in August ? Or England departing at the end of October? Heads bowed or tails-up? Glass half-empty or glass half-full? It’s been a disorientating few months for England followers, topsy-turvy, rollercoaster, take your pick, but at least the upturn came towards the finish, a suitably upbeat note on which to bid adieu to a few hardy travellers such as Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes and to look forward to a brighter future. Maybe.

It’s not as if dawn really is appearing on the horizon with an alluring rosy hue, hopeful and warming, signalling the way to a bountiful return in the Six Nations as the northern hemisphere’s finest from that competition. Beware mirages. Notionally, England are the third best team in the world but it would take a gallon of old wallop for any supporter to be bellowing that from the rooftops with any sort of conviction.

A different objective reality is out there, one that has France and Ireland (the Johnny Sexton successor question notwithstanding) in the box seats despite their own World Cup let-downs. Scotland and Wales, too, have every right to stake their own claims.

Antoine Dupont
England finished third at the World Cup but whether they storm the 2024 Six Nations is another matter with the likes of France and Ireland smarting (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

But, hey, let’s not get to the hangover before we’ve even had the fizz-fuelled celebrations. Pass me that glass fully full. This World Cup has been good for England. Sure, their attack is still plastered all over wanted notices around France – ‘Have You Seen This Person’, one with devil and cleverness in their bones and their souls, one daring to chance their arm and light up the landscape? There are also issues to consider as to their depth of front-row forwards that can scrum with the best of them. But they have discovered themselves again, shaped an identity for themselves, slugged their way through a few tight situations and found ways to win.

England will be packing up their old kit bags with something of a warm feeling inside, chuntering as to what might have been, for sure, as they matched the world champions in so many aspects

See how far South Africa got on tenacity alone. You can’t teach that from a textbook. You can rehearse all the scenarios you like on a training field but it doesn’t count for diddly squat unless you can do it when it really matters. As almost happened against the Springboks themselves in the semi-final. As did happen against Argentina last Saturday night. A bronze medal may be little more than a footnote in history books which rightly focusses on the true winners but to those England players pushing on into the 2024 Six Nations it means something after the wretchedness of the first eight months of the year when there was nothing but despondency in the air.

England will be packing up their old kit bags with something of a warm feeling inside, chuntering as to what might have been, for sure, as they matched the world champions in so many aspects (apart from that critical little one on the scoreboard) and that has to give them a certain degree of optimism for what lies ahead. They are blessed to have Steve Borthwick at the helm – now there’s a phrase of acclaim that has been a long time coming – for if there is one person in the entire rugby world who will not be getting carried away with any deluded notions of success it is the Cumbrian flat-batter, a man wholly invested in science and data rather than flim-flam flights of fancy.

Duane Vermeulen
England will console themselves that they gave the world champions, South Africa the fright of their lives (Photo by Julian Finney/ Getty Images)

The upshot of all this is that England supporters may have to make a pact with the devil for some time yet. Borthwick’s team have got to this point of relative well-being through playing ugly rugby. They are not a thing of beauty. Not even close. They do the basics and they play the percentages. It was only right and proper that England were criticised for their approach for one simple reason – it didn’t bring results. Even now, England’s win column registers victories over Argentina (x2), Samoa, Japan, Chile and Fiji. It is not a ledger of overwhelming conviction. Not yet.

South Africa are no great aesthetes, either, although they do at least engage their wings more often than England manage. It was as well that the tournament didn’t take place in deep winter or Henry Arundell might have had to have had a St Bernard dog sent out to rescue him from hypothermia as he shivered on his lonesome out on the wing. (And, yes, Arundell does need to go looking for the ball himself).

Given that three of the last four World Cups have been traumatic for England, with Brian Ashton forced out within 12 months, Martin Johnson dumped on after the misery of New Zealand and Stuart Lancaster sent on his way after the horror show of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, there is a settled, normal feel about what comes next.

The new wave of the likes of Tom Pearson, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Alfie Barbeary, Joe Heyes, Chandler Cunningham-Smith or whoever from a decent-sized list of contenders will be gradually integrated.

The next World Cup cycle will be a much more measured affair. Borthwick will amend his coaching staff, with Felix Jones arriving and other changes afoot. The playing roster will not undergo massive transformation. Lawes The Magnificent will be missed but Leicester’s George Martin already looks to the manor born. Ben Youngs and Jonny May have plenty of successors in the pipeline also.

The new wave of the likes of Tom Pearson, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Alfie Barbeary, Joe Heyes, Chandler Cunningham-Smith or whoever from a decent-sized list of contenders will be gradually integrated. It is not in Borthwick’s way to rush or to be pushed into steering away from those whom he trusts such as Owen Farrell.

But it is only good sense that he does look to layer on an attack that will challenge the elite teams. England have scrapped and harried, and, let’s be honest, ridden their luck through a favourable draw, to get to this point of modest acclaim. Ifs and buts and maybes but what might we be thinking today if they had been grouped in the other half of the draw?

Tom Pearson
England have a raft of gifted youngsters who could propel the side towards 2027, including Tom Pearson (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There have been genuine success stories such as Ben Earl. If nothing else Earl’s accomplishments at the tournament is a boon for that rather discredited practice of trusting the evidence of your own eyes. The Saracen back-row forward had been a stand-out performer in the Premiership, fast, busy, clever and all that and, blow me down, when he did get a sustained chance at test level, he produced exactly the same qualities.

The Premiership, of course, has its own issues to contend with as does the RFU. If there is a cloud on that dawning horizon it is the worry that the financial problems of last season, as well as the fractured, unconvincing governance of the union, have not settled yet. There are various schemes floating in the ether which might help the Premiership clubs to survive if not yet flourish. As for the RFU, they need to do a Borthwick and give the English public some assurance that things can get better. The team on the field has at least clawed its way back to a relative position of respectability. It’s high time the RFU get on the front foot, too, and delivered some results.

Comments

2 Comments
M
Michael 225 days ago

The potential of the England team to me was greater post 2019 RWC Final. Pity the 4 years then to now were so poorly managed. The team should have been ripe for RWC2023. Largely the same but with more caps and experience. Hopefully the same mistakes are not made.

World Rugby is better off with a firing England team. Step One, make Twickenham a fortress again!

C
Colin 226 days ago

Well said. The first and most important thing any Coach does is pick the best players. Why has Earls been ignored for so long, even under Borthwick. There are many players not even tried by England who are regularly good performers in the Premiership. Get selection right first Mr B.

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