English inquisition: Just what went wrong?
England set a steady platform for themselves with a hard fought victory over Fiji to get the ball rolling. A depleted Wales squad should have been no match for the hosts, and a vociferous Twickenham crowd ought to have carried England home against Australia. RUCK investigates why it all fell apart…
While the RFU may be claiming that there will be “no hasty decisions” regarding the future of head coach Stuart Lancaster, surely his days are numbered.
Questionable squad selections will now inevitably come back to haunt him. Whether or not he was right to stick by his principles and leave the likes of alleged assault perpetrator Manu Tuilagi and thuggish hooker Dylan Hartley out of the 23 is at least now open to debate.
Danny Cipriani could have perhaps offered something at centre, with Lancaster’s curious penchant for introducing George Ford in the last two games whilst keeping fellow fly-half Owen Farrell on the pitch simply compounding a complete lack of direction or tactical nouse.
Sam Burgess was a gamble that did not entirely pay off, despite some full-blooded performances from the former rugby league star. Luther Burrell must still be scratching his head in astonishment as to why he was not selected at centre, particularly as that was one key area that England struggled in.
Perhaps ultimately the pressure told, with the weight of a nation too heavy a burden to bare on such young and inexperienced shoulders. Captain Chris Robshaw appeared to be the right man to lead his country out, but not once did the Harlequins man seem confident in his convictions.
Rightly or wrongly, he too will be a scapegoat for one of the most humiliating exits from a host nation of a World Cup. At 29, this was likely Robshaw’s one and only shot of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup. If Lancaster was aiming to build a team for the future, then perhaps the flanker’s time is done.
England’s progress, or lack thereof, can be chartered back to the last World Cup. Clouded by controversy and off-field antics, a change of management and direction was needed to make this home tournament a successful one.
In hindsight, a quarter-final defeat to eventual runners-up France four years ago no longer seems like such a bad outing compared to the debacle of this year.
At the time, however, the appointment of Lancaster seemed an inspired one, and most certainly a step in the right direction. However, the signs were there before a ball was even kicked at this World Cup.
Four consecutive second place finishes at the Six Nations offered no indication that this was a team ready to become World Champions. In the big games that mattered in that competition, England failed to deliver. Why would it be any different on the largest stage of them all?
Experienced heads like Nick Easter were too few and far between in an imbalanced squad, which lacked real leadership, and any identity. Obviously there were unforeseen circumstances that Lancaster had to adapt to, vis-à-vis Tuilagi and Hartley, but the crux of this team should have been decided a couple of years ago.
England were beaten by Wales and Australia because they both played as a unit. Not once did this England side look like a harmonious team, with two many cogs singing from different hymn sheets.
Inexplicably, they got far too many of the basics wrong. A usually stout scrum was unable to exert itself, and indiscipline proved costly in both matches. England were slow in the breakdown and found themselves turned over on far too many occasions.
Against Wales, in particular, a lack of conviction and desire lost them the match, as a 10 point lead was inexcusably thrown away.
There were certainly some bright sparks for the hosts, with Jonny May announcing himself as a world class wing in the making, and Anthony Watson clearly still has bags of potential. Mike Brown again cemented his claim as one of the best fullbacks in the world. Farrell played his heart out against the Welsh, but his over eagerness against Australia ultimately proved costly.
Jewels in the squad that could have made the difference for England in the shape of centre Henry Slade and winger Jack Nowell were unforgivably not allowed a minute of playing time between them.
Ultimately, a lack of experience both amongst the players and management cost England, dear. They now receive the acrimonious honour of becoming the only host nation of a Rugby World Cup not to escape their Pool.
While it was indeed aptly dubbed the ‘Pool of Death’, England failed to acquit themselves well enough to the task at hand. To become Champions, you must beat the best, and this side, in all departments, simply was not up to scratch.