England and English rugby go into the World Cup in a sorry state. The defeat by Fiji was a shock for many, but it was a result that had been looming.
It was a rock-bottom this England team has fought hard to avoid, but one the RFU has been determined to reach! England left Japan and the World Cup final four years ago assuming they would get there again in 2023 and all was rosy. It was naive in the extreme to assume that.
Eddie Jones and his players had done a great job to reach the final and the last-four win over New Zealand was a high point. But they got their preparation all wrong for the final with South Africa.
England were hammered and the loss to the Springboks should have been all the proof the team required that they still needed to reach a higher level.
To get things right on the field, you must first get things right off it. English rugby is currently badly adrift in both areas.
It’s astonishing England will go into their World Cup opener as underdogs against Argentina
Below, Mail Sport columnist Sir Clive Woodward addresses how England can improve
Not even three years after the 2019 final, I stood in the Stade de France in March 2022 while working for ITV, and watched France celebrate a Six Nations Grand Slam having defeated England 25-13.
The difference between the two teams was astonishing. The score flattered England and, 12 months later, the gulf widened as France won 53-10 at Twickenham.
The problems are not just at national level. Three Premiership teams have fallen into administration, threatening the livelihoods of players and staff, and putting other clubs under huge pressure.
The RFU and Premiership Rugby have torn themselves apart over the salary cap. The same infighting that has persisted since the game went professional still exists today. Clubs are living hand to mouth.
The biggest losers are the players and coaches, without whom we have no game. Our age groups, once a stellar production line of talent, are being well beaten. It was alarming to see England lose to Georgia at Under 20 level.
The Championship and grassroots game seem largely neglected by the RFU, which is a colossal missed development opportunity.
The women’s game is having success. They should have won the last World Cup but were again Six Nations Grand Slam champions and played in front of a record Twickenham crowd this year. That is heartening.
This week, England cricket confirmed their women’s players would be paid the same as the men and it would be great if English rugby soon followed suit.
England lost 30-22 against Fiji in their last Rugby World Cup warm-up at Twickenham in August
Steve Borthwick watched England lose against a Pacific Island nation for the first time ever
John Mitchell is a good guy, but his appointment as the new Red Roses head coach is just another job for the old boys’ club. England should be looking to find rugby’s Sarina Wiegman. I could go on and on.
Who at the RFU will take responsibility for this? Every key metric is going the wrong way. Fans may still pour into Twickenham on a Six Nations weekend, but it is foolish to assume this will always continue.
The crowd for the Fiji game was poor and that must concern the RFU.
I hate looking at other teams for answers. But it is staring the English game in the face, particularly with the World Cup about to start.
French rugby shows how far England have fallen behind. In England, we have been stuck with orthodox thinking for too long. France’s TOP14 has taken a global view and reaped the rewards. They have packed stadiums week in, week out.
They pay their players handsomely and the fans are rewarded with superb rugby. It is no wonder England’s stars want to play and coach in France. I would.
At international level, France are blockbuster. They have assembled a coaching team who are as focused as they are talented.
Most galling of all is that at the heart of it is Shaun Edwards, one of England’s most successful coaches. How could the RFU have let that happen? The answer is very simple.
England must look at French rugby as an example to follow to rise again at international level
Most galling of all is that at the heart of French rugby’s success team is Shaun Edwards, one of England’s most talented coaches
I spend a lot of time in France now as director of sport at International Ski Academy Apex2100. One of our ski coaches showed me an interview with France head coach Fabien Galthie. It was brilliant. It made me wish I was a player again. And French, too!
Galthie talked about France embracing their Gallic emotion and intuition. ‘At any moment, a player is capable of achieving something very special,’ Galthie said.
‘That is what we are all trying to do. We can go down to four out of 10, but in a moment, with our freedom of expression, we can go to 14 out of 10. I want to focus on players’ qualities and real potential and every player doing something brilliant.’
Galthie went on to say that when a player does create a ‘special’ moment, it is the responsibility of the rest of the team to match them and embrace the freedom. He calls it the ‘French Flower’.
This sort of approach has always been at the heart of French rugby. On occasion, we have had it in England too but, criminally, it has been largely stamped out. Most coaches in England prefer a structured, attritional game.
Ireland have found a good mix of the two. Not only does their international team have a well-defined, exciting identity, but that style of play is coached at regional, club, age group and even school level.
In England, we are miles behind but are not without hope. France spent years underperforming but the prospect of a home World Cup forced them into radical change. The RFU need to take heed and do likewise, but I’m not sure they have the strength of leadership to do so.
England may go into this World Cup in a mess, but I refuse to believe that they are out of contention. We are set for the most extraordinary World Cup ever and England are more than capable of creating upsets. Beating Argentina in the first pool game would be exactly that.
For England to be underdogs against the Pumas is astonishing and shows just how far we have fallen. England go into this World Cup ranked eighth in the world, below Argentina, Fiji and Scotland. That’s not good enough for a country like ours.
Despite a string of poor performances, little clarity over selection and a severe lack of confidence, I still believe England can reach the semi-finals. Argentina, Japan, Fiji, Wales and Australia are realistically their biggest obstacles to reaching that stage.
What concerns me is, regardless of England’s performance at the World Cup, rugby in this country is on the precipice.
If you had told me 20 years ago England would be going into 2023 having still only won one World Cup, I would never have believed you.
You could question the players and coaches over the years. Or you could look at the suits in charge. For me, it is obvious where the fault lines are.