Sunday 17 December 2017

England are finding strength in numbers

Days of the old enemy looking wistfully at the Irish model are pretty much over, says Brendan Fanning

Four weeks ago, when Le Marseillaise was ringing out around Lansdowne Road at an impressive volume, it was hard not to fast-forward to Saturday next when it will be the turn of the English spiritualists to sing the Wallis Willis number they like so much. It was 1988, and their last game in that season's Five Nations campaign, when Swing Low got its first airing at Twickenham. As it happens, it was Ireland who were getting hosed at the time, to the tune of 35-3, with six unanswered tries.

That was the start of England as we know them today: big and powerful, well supported and well resourced. They didn't move seamlessly to that position but since then they have contested three World Cup finals, winning one, and reached the semi-finals in a fourth. In Europe, they dominated the '90s with back-to-back Grand Slams in the early part of the decade and a run of four straight Triple Crowns through the middle years.

Since the turn of the century they have slipped from being the dominant force in its early stages, while struggling to turn top-of-the-table finishes into Grand Slams until the all-conquering side of 2003. And while since then they have never finished higher than second, they are still the side we all want to beat -- not just for historical reasons but because English rugby is such a big operation, and knocking it sideways is good for the soul.

How big is it? They have more clubs and more players at all levels than anyone else. To get a handle on the David and Goliath picture painted by England and Ireland, we have a respectable 25,440 adult males playing the game; they nearly top the 168,000 mark. There are more than two and a half million men, women and children playing the game across the water. And the total figure is important in illustrating where rugby stands in the community.

The Premiership is a package that is holding up fairly well -- crowds are down five per cent on last season, which is reasonable in the current financial climate, and where both Sky and ESPN are screening games live. Premier Rugby maintain their fan survey earlier this season returned figures of 78 per cent for those who are more than happy with the product.

At national level they have in Twickenham one of the best stadiums in the world, which usually sells out its 82,000 for their November games (70,553 for Samoa), and not just the Six Nations Tests. The expectation is that in the run-up to 2015, when they host the World Cup, those paying fans will see a quickening stream of young talent in white shirts.

There is no guarantee that the work you do at underage level will bear fruit at the top end, but there is certainty that if you don't invest time and money here then you'll earn nothing later on. And England have waded in.

Operating off a base of over two million kids and teenagers playing the game, England at last have a system that identifies and develops huge numbers of talented players. Their dominance of the under 18 grade is such that they haven't lost a game for nearly four years. This is not schools rugby in the way we put out an Ireland schools team, rather it's a collection of the best players at that age grade -- from schools or clubs -- that they can find. They have bypassed the politics that hamstring the Irish system in this regard.

"From Rob Andrew down through (the Saxons coach) Stuart Lancaster to the age-group teams we've got an outstanding programme," says John Fletcher, the under 18 coach, with much modesty. "It's the envy of the world, and that includes the southern hemisphere. What the schools and regional academies are giving the national programme year on year is getting better and better in all respects. They are better coached as well."

Currently the senior side can put out the guts of a front five where 23 is the top age: Alex Corbisiero, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes are young men who are already effective and should be at the top of their game when RWC 2015 comes around. Last week they called up Harlequins prop Joe Marler to squad training. He is 20.

Minding these players is now manageable thanks to the Elite Player Squad (EPS) system signed by the clubs and the (English) RFU in 2004. And it's working away nicely. Well, nicely for England. Its effect can be seen in Northampton's slump in form, where the absence of Hartley, Ben Foden, Tom Wood and Chris Ashton -- plus Lawes who was injured until now, but would have been denied them anyway -- is not even up for argument. England are supporting the clubs financially, so England are calling the tune. The days of their coaches looking wistfully at the Irish model are pretty much over.

The kink in the system though seems to be at midfield where they have turned to a Kiwi, Shontayne Hape, when they should have filled the gap with a home-grown, and more creative, player. Neither does it look great when they have to call on South African flanker Hendrik Fourie. And results under Martin Johnson? Eh, less than 52 per cent.

At the start of the autumn series a few months back, his record was almost identical to Clive Woodward's at the same stage, yet Woodward went on to win 50 of their next 62 games. Johnson is looking a bit better with five wins from seven, starting in November, and he has done it with a limited game plan and a coaching team that looks at odds with itself.

All of which makes you wonder what they will be like when they get it right. And it will be when, not if. Big is not always beautiful, but for England it certainly is getting better looking.

Sunday Indo Sport

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