A year ago on Sunday, the Rugby World Cup began and so England embarked on a campaign that would ultimately provide the country with its greatest sporting moment in almost four decades and place rugby union in the forefront of the national consciousness, perhaps for the first time. Since then, nothing but hardship and misadventure: England have lost a head coach, two captains and an entire generation of Test players, as well as five of their last six matches. Things may get a whole lot worse before they get better as the acting head coach, Andy Robinson, attempts to solve his immediate problems. Here, appropriately enough, are 15 of them.
1: How not to be Sir Clive Woodward
Woodward was a unique figure: inspirational, antagonistic, business-smart and off-the-wall in equal measure - 50 per cent Brian Clough, 50 per cent Bill Gates. He is irreplaceable, which is a fact that Robinson should use to his advantage. Woodward's systems may still be up and running, but the less this England team has to do with Sir Clive, the better. Robinson must make it his by rebuilding it to his own specifications. Almost by definition, this will take time. Will he be given it in sufficient quantities?
2: How to kid the world that Martin Johnson is still around
This may not go down well in the more politically correct corners of society, but successful rugby teams require at least one big, aggressive, horrible so-and-so - two if possible. Woodward had Martin Johnson, who passed the test in all aspects, and Neil Back, who was everything except big. Robinson played in a Bath pack containing Gareth Chilcott, Graham Dawe, Richard Lee and John Hall, so he understands the requirements better than most. The search for the new Johnson is a priority.
3: How to form a relationship with the Premiership clubs
Robinson is held in high esteem by the top-flight coaches and directors of rugby, who consider him more sympathetic and less Machiavellian than his predecessor. But in a club-driven culture like England's, where the active rugby public does not necessarily place the fortunes of the national team at the top of its priority list, deep-rooted suspicion of Red Rose imperatives is the reality. Permanently offside as a player, Robinson's success in getting the clubs onside and keeping them there will be crucial.
4: How to bring Brian Ashton back on board
Ashton, currently in charge of the national academy, is the most imaginative coach in Europe, by a distance. England need him. As one very senior Test player of recent vintage said a couple of weeks back: "We're struggling to string a backs' move together, and the best bloke we have is running the under-12s. Explain that one."
5: How to defy medical science
Injuries, injuries. Jonny Wilkinson, Phil Vickery and Lewis Moody have had theirs and are waiting to assess the lasting effects; Simon Shaw thought he was recovering from his, but now knows differently; Josh Lewsey and Richard Hill copped theirs only recently - Hill is definitely out of the autumn internationals. Lucky coaches have their best players available at the optimum moments. Robinson needs all the luck he can get.
6: How to rediscover the art of passing
Will Greenwood can do it better than most, but he is in decline. Wilkinson can do it on a good day, but Mike Tindall, Ben Cohen and Jason Robinson seem to find it beyond them. While Stephen Larkham, of Australia, and Jaco van der Westhuyzen, of South Africa, are unlocking defences by the dozen, England cannot put together a half-decent passing movement for love nor money. Charlie Hodgson, of Sale, is an obvious solution, but he plays in the same position as Jonny-boy.
7: How to rise above the Lions
Robinson is uncomfortably aware that England generally have a rough season after a British and Irish Lions tour, to which they contribute large numbers of players who invariably return home injured, or exhausted, or both. The next Lions tour is in June.
8: How to combat the Springbok renaissance
The first major post-Woodward international is against South Africa at Twickenham next month. The Boks, developing rapidly under the astute leadership of Jake White, are already a smart-money bet to win the 2007 World Cup. And who must England play in the pool stage? Yes, you guessed it.
9: How to keep the Celts in their place
Or to put it more diplomatically, how to keep winning at the Celts' places. Both Ireland and Wales are prospering under their player-friendly regional systems, albeit to the detriment of an emasculated Celtic League. England visit both Dublin and Cardiff in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Ouch.
10: How to coach out-of-form players back into form
Hardened internationals should not lose form - at least, not all of it. Rugby is their job, after all. Yet Cohen has been dropped by Northampton, Greenwood is off the pace at Harlequins, Tindall has been struggling at Bath and Ben Kay is habitually dumped on the bench by the Leicester hierarchy. Already hit hard by retirements, Robinson cannot afford the luxury of good people playing badly.
11: How to name at least two of Wilkinson, Hodgson and Barkley in the same team
Typical. England spend years scratching around for a No 10 worthy of the shirt, and three materialise at once. Hodgson and Barkley are playing better than Wilkinson, but Wilkinson is the one guaranteed his place. That's rugby for you.
12: How to avoid rugby politics
Brittleism, Cottonism, Baronism, club-before-countryism, country-before- clubism - these rival orthodoxies still lurk deep down in rugby's body politic, and every so often they explode on to the surface like a particularly virulent strain of acne. Woodward was seemingly congenitally incapable of allowing an argument to happen without him, and that disputatious streak resulted in a major falling-out with the Premiership fraternity. Robinson will, no doubt, be pulled this way and that, but he cannot risk taking sides as he attempts to revive England's fortunes. Somehow, he must master the art of being all things to all men.
13: How to cope with losing
Robinson loathes defeat. Not in the way most people loathe it, but with a passion bordering on the self-destructive. It probably explains why he has never lost a cup final, either as a player or a coach. But defeats are looming, and they may come thick and fast. Deal with it, Robbo.
14: How to cope with being English
The England team was invented so rugby people of other nations could be united in their aversion to public-school twits. Times have changed, but the antipathy lingers. Deal with it, Robbo.
15: How to keep both eyes on the ball (a rugby ball, not a royal ball)
This is no time to lose concentration, not even if you happen to be dating a close relative of the monarch (step forward Mr Tindall). Maybe Robinson should try a direct approach of the kind recently attributed to a well-known member of the Bath management at a university event attended by the Princess Royal. "Excuse me, ma'am," said the gentleman concerned. "Do you think you might ask your daughter to stop distracting my players?"Reuse content