Brisbane and Sydney, Durban and Johannesburg, Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand, Mendoza in the foothills of the Argentine Andes… between mid-July and early August this year, each of these far-flung cities staged a game in the Rugby Championship. Over the next two weekends, the tournament at the cutting edge of the world game will be played all over again in London for the benefit of an audience raised on the “blunt instrument” theory of union.
They will surely spot the difference, having paid rather too much money to watch an England team whose coaching staff, run by Stuart Lancaster with more than a little help from the one-time rugby league practitioner Andy Farrell, seriously believed that the host nation might win this World Cup with a brand of rugby so primitive, it might have been dreamt up by Fred Flintstone. (Come to think of it, the hooker Tom Youngs does, in a certain light, bear an uncanny resemblance to Barney Rubble).
In all seven previous World Cups, at least one European team and usually two reached the semi-finals. This year? Nada. Wales and Scotland might have made it with the grace of God and a following wind, or even with a little old-fashioned luck, but some glaring frailties and fragilities also contributed to their demise. Ireland? Hammered by the Pumas. France? Humiliated by the All Blacks. England? Don’t go there. If we start, we’ll never finish.
Philippe Saint-André had it right – a fact that will intrigue his many critics in the land of Les Bleus, who insist he did everything wrong from the moment he succeeded Marc Lièvremont as head coach of France after the 2011 global competition. Following the 62-point thrashing inflicted by the New Zealanders in Cardiff on Saturday night, the former wing and captain was brutally honest in acknowledging that the reigning champions had played rugby that was not merely better than his own team’s, but entirely different. He was not talking about a gap, but a gulf: a Formula One outfit against a collection of fairground dodgems – 15 chess grandmasters pitting themselves against opponents stuck in a world of Poohsticks.
The truth exposed by this World Cup is that the Antipodeans – overwhelmingly Kiwis, with the odd Australian thrown in – are masters of all they survey, off the field as well as on it. No fewer than seven of the 20 finalists arrived at the competition with New Zealanders in the head coach position, and it may well be that England will follow the current Celtic model by recruiting a big-name strategist from All Black country to replace Lancaster.
Wayne Smith, one of the men at the heart of New Zealand’s recapturing of the Webb Ellis Trophy on home soil four years ago and still a prominent member of the think-tank, has long been in the Rugby Football Union’s thoughts (not that thinking is a popular pastime in the committee rooms of Twickenham). But he knocked back a role in 2012 and is unlikely to reconsider.
Far more likely is a serious pursuit of Warren Gatland, whose achievements with Wales on scant resources command respect. Gatland would not come cheap, but the RFU could easily buy him out of the remainder of his contract and allow him to bring his long-standing partner, the defence coach Shaun Edwards, as part of the deal.
A mere colonial in charge of Her Majesty’s rugger team? Stern resistance from the governing body’s backwoodsmen would be guaranteed, but even the most devout Little Englander might be hard pushed to identify a home-produced coach capable of making sense of red-rose affairs right now.
Steve Borthwick, now working with Bristol after a memorable stint with Japan, and Alex King, currently on the payroll at Northampton, have many of the qualities necessary to cut it internationally, but they need some years in the trenches before they reach for the stars. England are eighth in the world rankings – they’ve never been lower – and in dire need of a reality check ahead of a 2016 Six Nations that could destroy the remnants of their morale. More than anything, they are desperate for some hardened know-how of rugby at the top professional level.
Of course, England did have a far-sighted, free-thinking, modern-minded coach in Brian Ashton, but the RFU did away with him in 2008. The stupidity of that decision has cast a long shadow, yet some people still don’t get it. Martyn Thomas, the discredited former RFU chairman who was largely responsible for Ashton’s demise, took to the public prints just the other day to advise his successors on the way forward. No, really. Up, you could not make it.
It was Gatland who, during the pool stage of this tournament, said that coaches from New Zealand “know what winning rugby looks like” and that view has an awful lot of support. Ireland may have copped it from the Pumas at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday, but only a fool or a blind man would deny that they have made significant strides under the intelligent guidance of Joe Schmidt (born in Manawatu). Scotland may have come up fractionally short against the Wallabies later the same afternoon, but they are playing more attacking rugby under Vern Cotter (born in the Bay of Plenty) than at any time since the Emperor Hadrian started wondering whether a wall might be a good idea.
So if New Zealand and the other members of the southern hemisphere elite are driving the game forward, how do the Europeans get with the programme? Saint-André exposed himself to a charge of heresy by suggesting that the long, brutally exhausting stretch of the French Top 14 league did nothing for Tricolore ambitions at Test level, and there are many in England who believe the Premiership is equally damaging to red-rose prospects on the international stage.
And this is where the argument will be fiercest as the RFU review panel picks over the rotting carcass of their team’s World Cup campaign – the worst by any host nation, ever. Yet it is a question without an easy answer. Rugby in New Zealand and Australia, and increasingly in Argentina, is all about the Test team – skin, pips and core. In England and France, this is not the case. Why? Because on either side of the Channel, domestic club rugby matters to the people who follow the game (as opposed to those who cuddle up to it now and then over a pink gin).
Broadly speaking, Anglo-French rugby is constructed on the football model, while what might be called the cricket model prevails everywhere else. If there is a balance to be struck, it will take a genius to find it – and the union game in this neck of the woods has precious few of those. Until the RFU locates one, it may be as well to fly in a bloke from New Zealand and ask him to do his best. It may not be a perfect solution, but does anyone have a better plan?
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