THE MONDAY INTERVIEW : The radical at the heart of England
So far Jack Rowell's attempts to revolutionise his side's style of play have met with little success. But, as the England coach tells Steve Bale in an exclusive interview prior to the Five Nations' Championship, he remains committed to change
Monday 15 January 1996
After the panning the manager and his team received for the performance against the Samoans he has come to regard his media accusers in a significantly less favourable light - which is a polite way of saying he is fed up to the back teeth with people impugning his methods, his intentions, even his integrity.
This is a man who in a coaching career of the utmost distinction but more especially in a business career which also reached the heights was not used to being doubted, if only because he was invariably right. So the aftermath of the Samoan match, coming on top of criticism of the way England ended last year's World Cup and the subsequent defeat by South Africa, was more than he was willing to tolerate.
"I'm not here to be walked on," he said. "The mind boggles at people thinking they can be offensive without there being any reaction. I too get bored by watching dull rugby and frustrated watching accident-prone rugby. But what is causing it? Is it something I've introduced? I'm not opting out of my responsibility but I say: no."
Perhaps, then, it is time for Rowell to explain exactly what is going on, precisely why England have had, and are still having, such difficulty translating his theory of attacking, handling rugby - dynamism and flexibility being overused buzz-words - into practice.
Rowell became manager at the end of the 1993-94 season after Geoff Cooke's bolt-from-the-blue resignation midway through the 1994 Five Nations' Championship. That gave him one tour of South Africa and one domestic season in which to fashion a team and a style capable of realistically challenging for the Webb Ellis Trophy.
"I don't think it is quite understood that when I took over - at the 11th hour, as I always say - I had a decision to make about selection and, because it was necessary to keep that team together through to the World Cup, after the tournament the changes we had to make in the team were far greater than you would normally want.
"This has obviously affected the performance this season but at the beginning the problem was different: with the World Cup ahead it was the wrong time to change the players, so instead I had to set about changing the style. At that stage I did not think England could win the World Cup because I could see the English game was not evolving.
"England had just had a phase where from 1 to 15 they had had the best clutch of individuals for a generation but the try-scoring capability had more or less dried up and, if we were to have a chance in the tournament, it was essential to get away from the set-piece orientation that had served England well but had become inadequate."
Hence all that talk about dynamism and flexibility, and it is Rowell's contention that if the players ultimately did not deliver, especially in the shattering semi-final against New Zealand, that is down to them rather than him. "If anyone wants to criticise me, he should just look at the video of the New Zealand game," he said.
"I told the England players not to look at New Zealand but at England and see who is running and who is walking. The overriding thing I saw in the World Cup was how fast people from all countries reacted in thought and deed but at the same time we saw England players walking back with their backs to the game."
Rowell's post-World Cup response is that it is up to the players to do something about their shortcomings and up to the Rugby Football Union and the clubs to assist them. "I want the players to entertain themselves as well as the spectators, but we're not getting there because individuals are making too many errors.
"If people say that's Rowell rugby, it's not. Our club rugby is orientated to winning the next game but within that how much work are they doing on individual skills? English rugby is stop-start and untidy, and when players make errors in club games they get away with it. We always focus on skills at England sessions but I'm afraid the bulk of the work must be done week by week when they are with their clubs.
"The contrast with the southern hemisphere could not be greater. When I watch the Bledisloe Cup games between Australia and New Zealand I see, even on a rainy, windy day, the presentation of the ball being taken into contact being 90 per cent correct. They rarely make a mistake, the game seldom stops, and that's diametrically opposite to what I see in this country."
Which, Rowell feels, goes some way towards explaining the travails of his team, first in losing to South Africa in November and then in beating Western Samoa last month. But even so, does the buck not have to stop with the manager? "I understand that, but if you look at the England-South Africa cricket there is a scorecard for everyone to see who is performing and who isn't. I don't have that luxury. At the end of the series Atherton said some of the players hadn't performed well enough. Is that Atherton's fault? Is that Illingworth's fault? Is it?"
If this sounds like another piece of self- exoneration, Rowell further justifies himself by pointing to the elite player-development now being undertaken by the RFU at his behest which he hopes will avoid ever again having such a substantial transition as is now occurring. Selection stability was a byword of the Cooke era whereas the selection to play in Paris in five days' time includes as many as five who have been introduced this season.
"It would be easy just to say we are rebuilding but when the player-development thing gets going we won't need to rebuild. With the way we are now going we will go into the 1999 World Cup with each member of a squad of 26 being international- class, as opposed to knowing we have 15 and making do with the other 11.
"But this season is an immense challenge and I did warn the Rugby Union a year ago that this year was going to be very difficult. The World Cup team was running out of legs, meaning we needed to develop another one. But where is the talent, or rather where is the talent that is ready for international rugby? Where do we have a No 10 who can run a game for England as Rob Andrew used to do? The answer is we have to develop one because none had already been developed."
Rowell carries around with him the minutes of a players' meeting that took place at the end of the World Cup, after England had been knocked out by the All Blacks and then flopped against France in the third-place match. Their suggestions, mostly statements of the obvious about needing more speed, power, fitness etc, accord exactly with Rowell's thinking, and Phil de Glanville's accusation that England did not play as they practised might just as well have come from the manager himself.
He therefore feels justified in emphasising that there is no confusion, either in the players' minds about what is required of them or indeed in his own selection policy, notably the apparent incoherence in the choice of back row. As ever, Rowell has an answer: "I would be daft if I didn't listen to the messages of the Cooke era and one of these was the preference for a big back row.
"When we combined Rodber, Richards and Clarke I didn't think it would last. I didn't think Ben Clarke had sufficient flexibility, but then big players give you line-out presence, they are heavy hitters, they don't get brushed aside in the loose.
"Give them their due, they were part of a very successful England pack in the Five Nations and they didn't do badly in the World Cup before the sheer pace of the New Zealand game found them out. With that in mind, once we came into this season's South Africa game I wanted a proper open side. I felt I had to go for experience and, through his form at the time, we picked Andy Robinson.
"The policy didn't change when we then came to the Samoa match. Lawrence Dallaglio had played well when he replaced Rodber against South Africa and once we shook hands on the deal that he would play open side for Wasps he was selected. That was the rationale; there was no incoherence or inconsistency. Not only does Dallaglio give us height, at 6-3, he is also our fastest forward and faster than some of the backs."
And in the more general sense Rowell both backs himself and is content, notwithstanding his critics, to let his record speak for itself. "For someone who has been an international coach for less than two years, I would have thought to have won a Grand Slam and 11 out of 14 was a good track-record.
"Gosforth weren't the biggest team around when I started and we became national knock-out champions. When I joined Bath they were nothing much and we became the best. I've been into some run-down business situations and made them successful.
"And anyway in a difficult period I wouldn't have thought England have done so badly, though I sometimes have to remind myself that we did actually beat Western Samoa quite conclusively."
on domestic failings 'Our club rugby is orientated to winning the next game but within that how much work are they doing on individual skills? English rugby is stop- start and untidy, and when players make errors in club games they get away with it'
on who to blame for England's lack of success 'If you look at the England-South Africa cricket there is a scorecard for everyone to see who is performing and who isn't. I don't have that luxury. At the end of the series Atherton said some of the players hadn't performed well enough. Is that Atherton's fault? Is that Illingworth's fault? Is it?'
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