Friday 15 December 2017

'I wouldn’t expect Stuart to agree with the analysis, but I believe he took his eye off the ball'

Burgess inclusion at the heart of criticism of Leinster coach, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rob Andrew. Photo: Getty
Rob Andrew. Photo: Getty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The extract from Rob Andrew's upcoming book, 'Rugby: The Game of My Life' that was published in the Daily Telegraph yesterday contains scathing criticism of Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster for his role in England's ill-fated 2015 World Cup campaign.

Andrew held the position of the RFU's Professional Rugby Director, the equivalent of the role David Nucifora holds in the Irish system, until April 2016. In particular, the former out-half was heavily critical of the handling of Sam Burgess, whose presence, he says, destabilised the team.

"If there was a problem team-wise in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup, a selectorial Achilles' heel, it was to be found in midfield," he writes.

"Try as he might, Stuart Lancaster could not settle on an optimum configuration. Which is where Sam Burgess came in, and where things went horribly wrong.

"I would not even begin to pin the blame for our embarrassing World Cup misfire on a single player, but the kerfuffle around the introduction of Burgess was undeniably the tipping point.

"To this day, I simply do not understand the thinking behind the fast-tracking of a player from international rugby league to international rugby union when so many of the things that had made him wildly successful in the 13-man game were of questionable relevance.

"It was an almighty risk to select him in a World Cup squad on such extremely limited and highly questionable evidence and it proved to be an almighty blunder.

"Stuart Lancaster and Andy Farrell have always defended their position on this but, as far as I'm concerned, they can say what they like.

"Burgess was a rogue ingredient in the mix, both before the tournament and during it, and his inclusion had a negative effect.

"Why did Stuart do it? He alone knows the truth... But all head coaches are control freaks in their own ways, especially around the matches and tournaments they know will define them and Stuart became pretty dictatorial in the way he ran the England show in 2015.

"The Burgess business revealed him at his most obsessive: he was clearly not happy with his options at No 12 and had made up his mind that Sam offered him the nearest thing to a way out, despite the reservations of those who had not seen anything from him at club level...

"To my mind, it was a simple error of judgement: simple, and enormously costly.

"Stuart had made such a big thing about the importance of fighting for the honour to wear the shirt, yet in the frenzy of an impending World Cup he allowed something to take root in his mind that directly contradicted the very principles on which he had rebuilt the culture of the team.

"It was massively unsettling for a bunch of willing individuals who had been through a fair bit since coming together and had become very tight-knit as a playing group."

Lamenting his own inability to recruit All Blacks assistant Wayne Smith to the coaching ticket, Andrew said preparation involved too much running, questioned the selections in warm-up games and offered the opinion that the team froze on the biggest stage - describing the defeat to Wales as "a slow-motion car crash".

"My view of Stuart Lancaster now? He was undone by his workload - a self-inflicted wound in many ways," he writes.

"I wouldn't expect him to agree with the analysis, but I believe he took his eye off the ball.

"Instead of concentrating on a single, overwhelmingly important project, on agenda item No 1, Stuart became tangled up in all sorts of extraneous matters.

"He did a fine job in rebuilding the team but, for me, he had to sharpen his focus 18 months before the big event; he had to move from culture-building in the broad sense to creating a winning culture in the narrow sense."

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