If England are thinking what was once considered unthinkable, namely replacing Andy Robinson as head coach, they will have to act quickly or not at all. He was promoted not only to fill Sir Clive Woodward's shoes but to walk the line that won England the World Cup in Australia in 2003.
Robinson's contract, which expires in June 2008, was designed to give England continuity going into next year's global showpiece but he may not last that long. The case against is that his Six Nations record - the no-show against France in Paris was the seventh defeat in 14 matches in Europe since the World Cup and the heaviest in the championship for 20 years - is so scratched it is unplayable. And that may be unpalatable to the Rugby Football Union, who are busy investing in the redevelopment of Twickenham.
It was the shocking manner of England's decline against the French that had the inevitable effect of nudging Robinson closer to the trapdoor. The 31-6 defeat raised questions about Robinson's leadership and judgement. It wasn't just that Les Rosbifs were beaten, they were demolished with horse-radish and Yorkshire pudding.
This time last year Robinson was complaining about being on the receiving end of a series of one-eyed refereeing decisions and he pointed out, with some justification, that but for the rub of the green narrow defeats to Wales, France and Ireland could easily have been victories.
Even after the 18-12 overture of defeat by Scotland last month he claimed that England had created eight try-scoring opportunities and squandered the lot. After the retreat from Paris Robinson, for the first time, had no excuses. He was in a state of shock. "We were awful," he said, "and as the person in charge it is important I take responsibility. This was our worst performance since I've been involved. It tests your thought processes."
After Robinson joined as forwards coach in 2000, England won 41 of their next 50 matches, a fantastic record which made them the Tiger Woods of the world rankings. Now they are in a state of the union with which they are wholly unfamiliar. They were tryless against Scotland and France, prompting wholesale changes for yesterday's match against Ireland.
He had already been guilty of suspect selections and the recall of Matt Dawson, who was dropped from the élite player squad two years ago for putting the BBC's A Question of Sport ahead of training, has not been a success. Last week Dawson, asked on Radio Five Live if Robinson needed to take a good long look at himself, replied in the affirmative.
Twelve months ago Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU, gave his unqualified backing to the coach. There was a subtle difference last week when he appeared at England's training HQ and declared: "Everyone is subject to an annual review from myself down and we are expected to meet performance targets. The way to move forward is to stick to the established process, make analytical, logical and businesslike decisions and report back to the management board. In the short term failure does not affect our commercial programme. In the long term it does. You can't underperform continually and expect loyal supporters to keep spending their money."
When Robinson was promoted, voted unanimously for the job by by a four man panel, three former captains in Fran Cotton, Bill Beaumont and John Spencer and the performance director Chris Spice, he was described as a "passionate Englishman and a winner".
He is not wholly to blame for what has happened. Yes, he has made mistakes and the Lawrence Dallaglio distraction has been damaging, but the mix with England has never looked right since the departure of the backs coach Brian Ashton. It meant that Robinson had to work with two former rugby league men in Joe Lydon and Phil Larder and the partnership clearly has not worked. Lydon's philosophy was for the players to have "supreme, collective self-belief". "I want to remove all restrictions and set them free." Yet they have never looked more shackled.
Another factor is the intensity of the Guinness Premiership itself. It is remorseless in its professional competition but that does not necessarily produce the type of play, or the type of threequarter, that Lydon dreams of. Conversely, the fitness and strength that are required for the weekly forward battles are deemed to explain the renaissance of, for example, Raphael Ibañez, Wasps' French hooker.
An aberration in the ramshackle performance against the French was the collapse of Charlie Hodgson. Last season he missed three short-range penalties at Twickenham as England saw a 17-6 lead turn into an 18-17 victory for France. His confidence seems fragile to the point of non-existence when things go wrong. Philippe Saint-André, Hodgson's coach at Sale, has the task of "mending" the stand-off, who had given the impression of finally emerging from the shadowlands created by the injuries to Jonny Wilkinson.
Robinson's first decision as head coach was to appoint Wilkinson as his captain, so he hasn't had much luck there either. At the time Wilkinson said: "I'm thrilled Andy is in charge. He commands the respect of the players on the pitch and in the changing room. He's an outstanding coach and an incredible leader." If Robinson is good enough for Wilkinson he should be good enough for England.
It may be that like Scott Johnson at Wales Robinson is more comfortable working in a tracksuit, out in the middle with the players, than conducting press conferences. He is ferociously honest and takes defeat more personally than Sir Clive - and the knight detested every rare moment of it. Robinson looked isolated, almost bereft, at the Stade de France.
I would not get rid of him but England could ease the pressure by appointing a team manager (Dean Richards or John Wells?), a move favoured by Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman. The task is certainly big enough but whatever England decide it should be in place before they travel to Australia in the summer. The Wallabies do not tolerate defeat either. Remember Eddie Jones, the coach of the World Cup finalists? He's now a consultant at Saracens.
"When things go wrong the first thing I do is look at myself," Robinson said. "I believe we have quality people working on this project which is why defeats such as in Paris are such a disappointment. I didn't expect that. What I do expect is the flak to start flying. It's human nature."Reuse content