Rugby World Cup 2011: Why England Failed
England’s stuttering World Cup campaign came to end with a comprehensive 19-12 defeat to France in the quarterfinals. The damage was done in the first half, as tries by Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard gave the French a 16-0 lead they never relinquished.
Now the inquest begins.
The English media, not renowned for its sympathy toward failure, will be unrelenting, tearing Coach Martin Johnson and the players to shreds over the next few days.
So where did it go wrong for the nation with the most money, resources and players?
The appointment of Martin Johnson, a man with no coaching experience, was always going to be a risk, and it has not paid off.
While Johnson was a fine leader on the pitch, he showed little aptitude for the coaching job and was unable to change England’s stale tactics and incorrect player selection.
One of the more baffling decisions was to keep on John Wells as forwards coach. A lot of England’s problems have been down to Wells, whose outdated theories have seen the English forwards fail to adapt to the way the modern game is played.
There are plenty of talented coaches at domestic level. Someone like Northampton’s Jim Mallinder, who has had plenty of success and experience, would be far better suited to the role than Johnson.
2. Team Selection
It was clear going into the quarterfinals that Martin Johnson had no idea what his best 15 was.
There were so many selection questions before the France game, and Johnson got a lot of the calls wrong. Matt Stevens was selected at prop ahead Alex Corbisiero even though the latter played far better when he came on against Scotland.
The same problems arose at second row, half-back and centre, where Johnson seemed unable to find the right combinations.
Even worse was in the back row, where the combinations are by far the most important, and where Johnson could not find the right players for the right positions. Johnson ended up dropping James Haskell, who was probably England’s best back-row forward.
Last autumn, England beat Australia because they played running rugby where the forwards dominated, allowing the likes Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden to play their natural game.
There was no sign of this at the World Cup.
The reason these talented backs never got the chance to cut loose was due to the lack of good ball to work with. This was because England did not put enough forwards into the breakdown, allowing the opposition back rows to slow down the English ball and disrupting the England supply lines at half-back. This is Wells’ biggest failing as forwards coach.
When England are not dominating up front, they do not seem to have a plan B. Teams are wise to this now and play in such a way that England struggle to adapt to.
4. Lack of a Proper Openside Flanker
What two things do Richie McCaw, Sam Warburton, Heinrich Brussow and David Pocock have in common?
Answer: They’re all traditional openside flankers, and they’re still at the World Cup.
The number seven provides one of the most crucial roles in the team. When the opposition have the ball, they get on the floor and do all the dirty work of slowing the ball down and turning the ball over on the borderline of legality.
When their team has the ball, they make sure it is presented properly for the scrum-half to give the backs good ball. It is an extremely specialised position.
Yet since Neil Back, England have never had a specialist seven in their side, and it showed. Lewis Moody is not a proper openside; nor are Haskell or Croft.
Why Phil Dowson, Andy Hazell, Chris Robshaw and Steffon Armitage—who are all proper sevens—have not at least been tried is beyond me.
England failed to address their main problem throughout the tournament, giving away penalties.
The penalties given away, by and large, were unnecessary and performed the twin role of killing any momentum they had and giving the opposition the chance to score easy points and put the pressure on England.
The problem seemed to be that England gave penalties away in their own half but not in positions where the opposition were threatening the try line. Contrast that with Wales, whose outstanding disciplined defence has got them into a semifinal.
England’s off-field activities were a huge distraction. While the media coverage of the whole affair was vastly overblown, the attention must have diverted attention from their game preparations.
6. No Creativity at Inside Centre
When you have players of the quality of Ashton, Foden and Delon Armitage out wide, you need a player at inside centre who can provide good quality ball. England did not have that.
The problem was exemplified by the fact that Johnson tried Shontayne Hape, Mike Tindall and, in a fit of desperation, Toby Flood at 12, and none of them provided the quality quick ball needed to release the backs.
As with the openside flanker position, England have domestic players who can fill that role. Anthony Allen and Brad Barritt both had excellent seasons for their clubs sides, but neither were even considered for the World Cup squad.
7. The Future
England have plenty to be optimistic about. They have a number of young players that can form the nucleus of a competitive side for years to come.
But first, they need to overhaul the coaching setup, starting with the removal of Johnson, Wells and maybe backs coach Brian Smith.
Next, bring in the number of young players coming through in the domestic scene, and make sure they have the experience to compete at the next World Cup.
The future is bright for England, but they need to get the coaching setup right and bring the right players through.