You will find their names on every bookmaker’s list of runners and riders for the Great England Rugby Coaching Stakes, run every four years in a perfect circle in imitation of the red-rose midfield: Sir Clive Woodward, Eddie Jones, Jake White, Nick Mallett, Wayne Smith, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Why not Kevin Spacey too? We can’t have a proper revival of The Usual Suspects without a man with a fake limp.
The hanging, drawing and quartering of Stuart Lancaster and his fellow coaches has been under way since Saturday night and those thirsting for blood will expect to see heads on spikes somewhere in the vicinity of Traitor’s Gate well before the start of the dead-as-a-dodo game with Uruguay this weekend. The only soft spot some people have for Lancaster right now is made of quicksand.
Enough already. A rush to judgement in these circumstances is headlong dash into Nowheresville. Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, may not have won many new friends during his ultra-circumspect appearance at the England base in Surrey yesterday, but he was surely justified in insisting that the review into the national team’s World Cup demise should be “calm, rational and carefully considered”. Would the alternative – frenzied, illogical, half-baked – be in any way preferable?
There are two things worth remembering. Or rather, two people. Woodward endured a rough first World Cup campaign in 1999 and was roundly condemned by people who would later reinvent themselves as his greatest supporters. The RFU retained his services, largely because no one was kicking down the door to replace him, and duly laid hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy four years later.
The second person? Graham Henry. When the All Blacks were sent packing at the quarter-final stage of the 2007 tournament – famously, their flight home passed one en route to France, packed with New Zealand fans who had bought tickets for the semi-finals and final – it seemed the “Great Redeemer” would find no redemption through a continuing role in silver-ferned affairs. Again, he was reappointed and struck gold the second time around.
Anyone with eyes to see reached the conclusion long ago that England would have a far better chance of winning the big prize in Japan in 2019 than they had on home soil. Lancaster himself acknowledged as much, not that he said it openly for fear of being slaughtered in the public prints. By the time the circus moves to the land of the Brave Blossoms, the likes of George Ford, Henry Slade, Anthony Watson, Joe Launchbury, Jamie George and Maro Itoje could and should be among the best players in the sport.
That is in no small part due to the current coach. As he said in a rare attempt at self-defence: “People talk about the evolution of the England back line. Well, when we started four years ago, Ford and Slade were in the England Under-18s and came to watch us train. Now, they’re in our World Cup squad.”
This is not to suggest for a second that things should remain the same. There needs to be an overhaul of the coaching panel, not least because some of the selection decisions. But the RFU must think very carefully indeed before losing Lancaster to the open job market. He knows too much about the players who may soon matter to English rugby to be done away with completely.