It is a dozen years since the committee-room grandees at Twickenham stood by Clive Woodward amid the rubble of a miserable World Cup campaign, despite tons of advice to the contrary, much of it from people who would shamelessly hail Woodward as a genius when he brought home the Webb Ellis Trophy at the second time of asking.
Quite why the governing body thought it a good idea to sack those who followed him at the drop of a hat – Brian Ashton went within 80 minutes of defending the title and still found himself drummed out of a job – only they know, but their rediscovery of patience and consistency is now bearing fruit. Ask Ben Foden.
"We've been building," said the Northampton full-back when asked to explain the recent improvement in red-rose fortunes. "It's been a long process, but we're a relaxed camp now and everything is going in the right direction. I've been involved with the squad for two or three years. At first, it was a bit ropey: coaches were learning about players and players were learning about coaches. But you could feel as time went on that players were beginning to understand the coaching methods and the coaches' expectations. We've grown together. We have the right blend of people, talking together and listening to each other."
Had the Rugby Football Union dealt with the current manager Martin Johnson the way it dealt with Ashton and his immediate predecessor Andy Robinson, another change would have been inevitable. But the sulphurous stink surrounding their treatment of Ashton in early 2008 guaranteed Johnson a clear run towards this year's World Cup, and with the dividends of the player access agreement between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs beginning to accrue, England will head to New Zealand in the autumn with a settled side, as opposed to the entirely unsettled one that travelled to France in '07.
"We learned a hard lesson against South Africa back in November, but winning the opening Six Nations game in Wales was a massive stepping stone," Foden continued. "We knew we could set the right tone for the competition by doing that, especially with two home games following, and to come through a big crunch match with France and out the other side shows we're getting better.
"But we have work to do. Beating Scotland and Ireland in our last two games will be no easy feat and even if we go to the World Cup as the No 1 team in the northern hemisphere, we know it will still be as underdogs. The tournament is in New Zealand's backyard and they're the top side in the game. To do anything there, we'll have to be firing on all cylinders."
Foden's try against France last weekend was the decisive act of a tourniquet-tight contest, and with his club-mate Chris Ashton also paying visits to the opposition in-goal area at Test level, things are looking bright for Northampton. Or rather, they would be if the Midlanders could find a way of winning a game in the absence of their Test contingent, which also includes the hooker Dylan Hartley, whose influence on England affairs grows more significant by the game, and Tom Wood, the find-of-the-season flanker. (Not to mention Courtney Lawes, who would have started all three Six Nations games to date but for injury).
"Things have been pretty disappointing," admitted Foden, referring to Northampton's gruesome run of five successive Premiership defeats. "We haven't had the most successful 2011. I hope things will turn round before we return, but if not, we'll be looking to get back there and rescue it in time. There are a lot of people out, and the performances of people like Courtney and Tom are being missed. But it's going to happen at this time of year. It just shows the need to strengthen the squad.
"If you look at Leicester – I always turn back to Leicester – they win competitions every year even though they have loads of players involved in the England set-up. You can't argue with it. Good clubs with good squads are the ones who cope. It's something we'll address, I'm sure."Reuse content