Saturday, 14 November 2009

England Rugby

Six years ago this week I sat with Natalie Slessor in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney and saw England win the Rugby World Cup. It was an amazing night, a memorable trip, and a proud achievement, which was rightly celebrated with that parade through the streets of London. Since then it’s been downhill for England rugby.

I watched today’s game against Argentina at home on Sky TV. Frankly, I’m not willing to pay around £100 for a ticket to sit at Twickenham and see play this poor – and it’s been consistently poor since that famous night in Sydney. Dull, unadventurous, error-ridden, and without real ambition. From being the best in the world, England has fallen to eighth place in the world table.

At half-time today the score was 9-9 and it looked as England would suffer another defeat. A try nine minutes from the final whistle let England win 16-9 but that can’t hide a shocking display.

The current England head coach is Martin Johnson, who was a brilliant player captain and led England through the long years and the campaign which culminated in that win in November 2003. Twelve months ago, after a long run of losses, the same Johnson was appointed Head Coach – the fourth since 2003. He had no experience of coaching, which made many of us wonder at the time just what his employer – the RFU – thought the job was about. Additionally, they made him retain the large team of sub-coaches who were already in place – possibly thinking that their experience would make up for his lack. They were wrong: It must now be time for change.

The excuse for today’s poor showing will be that England is depleted by a huge number of injuries in the elite squad. That is true, but in fact England is the wealthiest, best resourced, rugby union in the world, and can draw on a larger pool of players than any other country – bar none.

England’s opponents today, Argentina, have been improving markedly year on year. Life is tough for them. They don’t have regular international games in either the northern or southern hemisphere. Most of their best players play their club rugby in France and England, and that experience is helping them develop a group of tap class players, but it is still a very small group. As a national team, they have a fraction of the budget of England, many fewer professional players to choose from, and a tiny pool from which to develop the next generation of stars. In today’s squad at Twickenham they had 6 amateur players, they had only four days together to train and work on tactics. And yet until the last ten minutes, they held England to a draw.

Next week England play New Zealand. I wouldn’t advise buying a ticket – unless you’re an All Blacks supporter.

Natalie meets England hooker Steve Thompson the morning after winning the World Cup.

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