The last week or so cannot have been all that enjoyable for English rugby union fans. Going out of their own world cup in the group stages – the first host nation ever to do so – was bad enough, but the last week, the recrimination, bitterness scapegoating, all with the benefit of hindsight, will have worn anyone down. The endless patronising of the head coach Stuart Lancaster – “a decent man, but…” – and attributing the entire blame on – surprise! surprise! – an ex rugby league player, Sam Burgess, has been as nauseating as it has been for its snobbery.
I heard it again last night, with the BBC’s rugby union correspondent Ian Robertson, ex private school, ex Cambridge of course, putting the boot into Burgess once more. It’s boring, very boring, but you get the impression that Robertson would blame Burgess for just about anything, if given the opportunity.
The “experts” have been queuing up all week to attack Lancaster and Burgess. Will Carling, the former captain, who never won the world cup and hasn’t even coached a Sunday pub team, knew best, as did Dean Ryan, who comes across as a serial narcissist who thinks he is the only person on earth who knows the first thing about rugby union.
Endless one way debates, usually ending in “Lancaster must be sacked!” and “Burgess back to league?” headlines. It’s almost as if the rugby union has turned the game’s state of mind into that of football. When do we want success? Now, or you’re sacked.
It has been hard to pick a voice of reason from the ether because there hasn’t really been one, until today when the legendary All Blacks coach Graham Henry spoke on Radio Five Live.
When asked whether Lancaster should be sacked, his answer was unequivocal: “All professional sporting coaches who have been in their job for a while have roller coasters. Those times are extremely difficult and I can empathise with Stuart. I hope Stuart stays because you learn a lot more from tough times.
“He has got the ability – it’s a no-brainer to me. Stuart is a good man and has produced a side with good values.”
Henry added that the main reason England had failed so spectacularly – my words – were that the players weren’t good enough.
I do not pretend to be an expert on rugby union so I rely on the thoughts of those who are the most respected in the game and Henry must surely come into that category. Even he has known lows in his long and distinguished career and it is fair and reasonable to say that if Lancaster’s players weren’t yet good enough to win a world cup and that Lancaster himself his not quite the finished article as the head coach, wouldn’t it make more sense to carry on what he is doing with the experience of what has happened to the team and him?
I cannot see the logic of sacking the entire coaching team and starting again and Henry agrees: “Continuity of people is critical if you want to produce something special. They know where they have been and where they are at and what they need to do to get better. If you bring a new person in, it starts all over again and takes someone two or three years to get their feet under the table and feel comfortable in the job.”
It does look, from the outside looking in, that Lancaster has been hung out to dry by the RFU. No one has so much as offered any kind of defence or support. He might be the decent man everyone believes him to be but that’s no reason to not leave him hanging on the vine.
Why not bite the bullet, admit that the reason England lost was that they weren’t actually all that good, that everyone should and hopefully will learn from this early tournament exit and that Lancaster and his team deserve the chance to finish the job? Sadly, I expect the knee-jerk reaction, the quick fix and the same old mistakes to be made. That’s what we do in England, always, isn’t it?