Sport Rugby

Sunday 24 September 2017

The England deadly sins that led to World Cup hell

Chris Hewitt

Earlier this week, the men who run rugby in Samoa fined the national manager Mathew Vaea the grand total of 100 pigs after deciding he had treated the recent World Cup campaign "like a holiday" and besmirched the team's reputation by failing to perform his duties to an acceptable standard.

Yesterday, the England coaching panel, with the notable exception of the scrum expert Graham Rowntree, found themselves being fed through a king-sized bacon slicer by the very people who had been in their charge -- players who, in confidential documents that quickly became anything but, exposed the Martin Johnson regime.

brilliant

By comparison, the Samoans ran a brilliant show in New Zealand. According to three leaked reports -- one compiled by the English Rugby Union, the second by the Premiership clubs and the third by the players' union -- England's attempt to recapture the Webb Ellis Trophy was undermined pretty much from the start by archaic coaching practices, confused selection, strategic and tactical thinking that was about as clear as mud and a culture of rampant greed. Each of the seven deadly sins featured in one or other of the reviews.

To take the last first, it was patently obvious throughout Johnson's sorry tenure as manager that players were up to their nostrils in a financial feeding frenzy -- yes, like pigs in the trough. Unused to paying for so much as a cup of coffee while on England duty, some of the elite squad, including senior members of many years' standing, were spending much of their time maximising their earning potential to the detriment of their rugby.

Johnson, very much a shop steward during his own playing days, apparently saw no reason to address the issue.

Certainly, no one addressed it with Lewis Moody, whose appointment as captain towards the end of the 2010 Six Nations Championship raised a few eyebrows (although not nearly enough). In one of the reviews presented to the Professional Game Board a week ago, he was accused, anonymously, by his colleagues of being too commercially driven for comfort.

In the ERFU version, compiled by the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, he was taken to task for leading a players' revolt over pay shortly before departing for Auckland.

It appeared during the competition that the spirit of camaraderie was nothing but a veneer. A number of players -- Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Tom Wood among others -- could barely conceal their frustration at some of the things they were witnessing, whether in the team room, on the playing field or at the bar. Yesterday, suspicions turned into fact. None of the many accusers were named, but there was nothing left to the imagination in their allegations.

After the quarter-final defeat by France, after which one player was heard to bemoan the fact that £35,000 in bonuses had "just gone down the toilet," the defence coach Mike Ford had the temerity to tell a gathering of journalists: "You have to keep Martin at the helm. I don't think he can be replaced. He's creating a culture and it can't be done overnight."

It was mentioned at the time that Johnson had been granted more than a thousand nights in which to create this "culture" and now, in light of the evidence just presented to the board, Ford's remark can be seen for what it was, in all its dark comedy.

One player described the long pre-season training camp as a "complete f**k-up"; another said the man-management was "absolutely terrible"; a third said that, contrary to assurances from the back-room staff who had confessed to being over-prescriptive early in the regime and claimed they had learned their lesson, there were "two massive playbooks" governing tactics that would be used during the tournament -- playbooks that were ignored by the players for the good reason they were so long, they might have been written by Tolstoy.

Coaching, the players alleged, was sub-standard. There was no detail, and no hint of a unified approach. "We had no identity," said one complainant. "We weren't the best at anything and we weren't encouraged to be. Basically, we did a bit of everything averagely. They had four years to develop a plan, yet it felt like they were doing it off the cuff."

Johnson, we knew right from the start, was no one's idea of a coach: he had no experience of coaching even at age-group level, and was therefore in no position to tell anyone anything in the technical sense. His responsibilities were selection, discipline and tone-setting. As the reviews make abundantly clear, he fell flat on his face in all three departments. He also chose a coaching team ill-suited to the demands of a World Cup challenge -- perhaps the most catastrophic error.

"He was surrounded by the wrong people," read one comment. Yet unlike his predecessors, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton, the former captain had been given carte blanche to pick his men. As one very senior player said yesterday: "He didn't know enough about what he was going into, so he stuck with people he knew."

painful

The really painful criticisms, apart from those aimed at Moody, concern the forwards coach John Wells, the backs coach Brian Smith, the kicking specialist Dave Alred and Ford, the defence strategist. "There must be 20 coaches in the Premiership who would be better than Wells," said one player.

Another shone this illuminating sidelight on events: "We had kicking problems, yet almost every morning who did you see swanning around in a polo shirt to play another round of golf? Alred."

Poor Smith came off worst of all: "Way out of his depth." Ouch. "He just didn't understand the game well enough." Double ouch. "If we'd got to the semi-finals or final, it would have papered over the cracks and the worst thing is he'd have stayed in his job." If this had happened in Samoa, there would not be enough pigs on the island to meet the punishment. (© Independent News Service)

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