Will Carling, the triple Grand Slam captain who helped to transform England into one of the best teams in the world in the 1990s after the doldrum decades of the 1970s and 1980s, has issued the RFU with a chilling warning.
Reflecting on the wasted opportunity for England to make a mark at the 2015 World Cup after going out in the pool stages, Carling warned in this Rugby Paper exclusive that the consequences could be dire for the game in this country, including the professional tier of players no longer caring about playing for their country and fans turning their back on Twickenham.
“If the RFU make another wrong turn this time they will lose people. That’s not just in terms of public support for the England team, but also the support of the players. My understanding is that some elite players are even ambivalent about playing for England – and that’s a great, great pity.”
Speaking on the eve of the 2015 World Cup final, Carling, whose Red Rose team lost narrowly to Australia in the 1991 final at Twickenham, blasted the English governing body for their inept playing policy over the last decade.
“I don’t think the RFU recognise the depth of feeling out there in English rugby. People are very annoyed. So much of getting a high-performance system in place is about common sense, and it is criminal the waste of talent, experience and potential there has been since 2004. Wrong appointments have been made one after another, and English rugby has stumbled from one disaster to the next. With the depth and the talent that we’ve got in this country we should always be there or thereabouts in World Cups, let alone the Six Nations – yet, instead, we have won just one Six Nations Championship in 12 years.”
The 1991, 1992 and 1995 Grand Slam centre said he had not been approached to participate in any of the RFU’s review panels, or been sounded out on his views.
“I’ve not been asked, and nor have I put myself forward – but if I had been it’s something I would have taken very seriously. However, I’m not talking about myself when I say that there is a wealth of knowledge in English rugby that has just been ignored. We have to plug into that brains trust because you have to use every opportunity in a situation like the one England now find themselves in. I am staggered, for example, that they haven’t spoken to more of the guys who won the World Cup in 2003, or someone like Geoff Cooke, who was responsible for turning English rugby around during my era.”
Carling is highly critical of the personnel and the process that the RFU have put in place since the England team under head coach Stuart Lancaster crashed out of their own tournament after being belted 33-13 by Australia three weeks ago.
“I look at the panel that has been appointed by the RFU and ask where is the authority, experience and credibility to deal with high-level coaching issues? Someone like Ian McGeechan is compromised given his association with Stuart Lancaster’s appointment, and even Ben Kay is a quieter figure than some of his 2003 counterparts. Surely, you have to look at guys like Cooke, Brian Moore, Dean Richards, Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Greenwood, below,?” He adds: “What is it with the RFU, that there is this distrust of former players and coaches? Why is a former FA man (Ian Whatmore), who was in an administrative role there, involved? We are not talking about admin here, we’re talking about high-level rugby coaching.”
Carling says the lack of urgency to identify the problem with England’s broken playing engine and fix it has been symptomatic of the problems embedded in the RFU system.
“This is a horrible, jumbled mess, but even this panel must realise that maintaining the status quo is not an option because the trust and belief between the players and the coaches is broken.
England need to appoint top coaches quickly because the Six Nations is fast approaching, so why has this review taken so long? In big business decisions involve many more grey areas than English rugby and yet decisions are made far faster than this. That in itself harms the credibility of the RFU.”
Tarnished credibility or not, Carling is adamant that the panel has to come up with the right recommendations. “We cannot have another caretaker coach, and they must go and do whatever it takes to get the new coaching team in place by late November or early December. It’s not rocket science, and there is a limited choice of coaches with the right credentials, all from overseas. If we appoint an overseas head coach then it’s crucial that among the support coaches there are a couple of English guys in there who can learn and take it on. Let’s get this right, and get a succession plan in place.”
Suggest to Carling that it also may be time to appoint a young England captain, just as Cooke did by handing him the responsibility at the age of 22, and he suggests the current Academy-reared generation of England players lackinitiative.
“Whoever is coach will have fixed ideas about what he wants to do. For me, we don’t have a core of leaders, and that’s why it should not all be landing on Chris Robshaw’s shoulders. What has to be asked is has Robshaw as captain been allowed to have an influence on the team, and have he and the senior players had the courage to sit the coaches down and say they want that involvement?”
He adds: “I know that many of the players were unhappy with the environment – but they didn’t challenge the coaches. The Academy system has had something to do with it, and it’s a sad indictment that we do not encourage players to think for themselves. Why has professional rugby in England become about just following orders?”
Contrary to the coaching mantra that it takes years to build an effective Test outfit, Carling says that important changes can be made rapidly – and says that the Wallabies getting to the World Cup final illustrates the point.
“Look at what the Aussies have achieved with their pack in 11 months, and you can see how quickly things can change in international rugby. There are still some very good players in the England squad, but they need greater participation in the direction the team takes. Whatever happens coaching-wise, the players have to be heavily involved in strategy, leadership and taking responsibility. That hasn’t happened in four years, whatever is said.”
Reflecting on his own experience as a young captain, it is clear that Carling did not lack initiative. “I was lucky there were lots of experienced players within the group. I’d say to them, ‘guys, you’ve got the experience, tell me what needs to alter’.
“I was a conduit to Geoff Cooke, and he had the sense to listen. I remember being petrified every time I stood up in front of forwards like Richards, Moore, Wade Dooley, Peter Winterbottom and Mike Teague. But they knew I wanted to win, and that it mattered to me more than anything. I spent so long listening to them in groups, and as individuals. If they were grumbling I’d say, ‘what would you change about it’, or, ‘give me a better option’. On top of that you try to earn respect from what you do as a player on the pitch.”
He adds: “As someone who experienced being in the same side as guys with strong characters and views, like Brian (Moore) and Dean (Richards, above), it’s clear that the coaches have spoon-fed these players too much. I’ve spent time watching England train and for me it is too classroom-esque. They have not been challenged to think for themselves, and that’s why they have not been able to respond well under pressure in terms of leadership.”
He continues: “How come the coaches appoint the leadership group? It’s a contradiction – teams like the All Blacks generate their own leaders. It’s time the England players stepped up to the challenge. If they do that, then the coaches have genuine pillars in the team to call on. Together they generate a consensus and belief in the style they want to play, and that should be underpinned by consistency in selection, which is essential.”
Carling says that Lancaster put too much emphasis on ‘team culture’ and not enough on getting selection right and building a winning team.
“There was a lot said about pride in the shirt, but sport at the top level is about winning – and pride in the shirt, and connection with the fans, comes from that. To me, it’s black and white. Stuart did a very good job in settling the side after the 2011 World Cup, but it was not the horrific shambles that was portrayed. We won a Six Nations Championship before that World Cup, and then were knocked out in the quarter-finals. The issues that confronted England then have been exaggerated.”
A lack of focus, and media distractions – such as his own recent Twitter tangle with scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth – were also a sign that team bonds were not as strong as suggested.
“The RFU want to put out these bland, sanitised players, but then they allow them to get involved in Twitter storms,” Carling says. “Their aim should be focused on playing in the World Cup, not getting involved in arguments with old players like me. If you don’t agree it’s best not to dignify it with an outburst, and instead do your talking on the pitch. It was triggered when I said the England camp was like a classroom, but I was surprised that the coaches let it happen. My reading of it is that, even though there were far worse things said, perhaps it hit the nail on the head.”
Carling says this England team started to stagnate about 18 months ago. He argues that Lancaster and his assistant coaches Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree never settled on the midfield combination, and struggled to get the right balance in the back row, on the wings, at fly-half, and even at No.8.
Carling has no truck, either, with the suggestion that Lancaster’s position is comparable with Clive Woodward and Graham Henry being reappointed after World Cup nosedives.
“The implosion here was different to what happened with England when they lost to South Africa in the 1999 quarter-finals, and also to the All Blacks in 2007, when they were beaten by France. The selection issues here were much bigger. Just look at those surrounding Sam Burgess – not the man, but the decisions made about him by others.”
He adds: “To have that sort of doubt at international level just doesn’t work. Sadly, the buck stops with the head coach. It has to, because that’s your job. The impression was that as the pressure came on Stuart thought, wrongly, that because he hadn’t played at the top level he had to refer to assistant coaches who had – and they made calls that just didn’t stack up. It’s there that Lancaster’s coaching inexperience came out.”
Carling says that’s why selection and strategy lacked consistency. “One minute you’re playing a fast, high-tempo game like New Zealand, and then the next, when the World Cup arrives, you decide you’re going to play Wales with a game plan all about pressure defence. It just seemed all wrong.”
In Carling’s view it’s high time those wrongs were put to rights, or the RFU, despite a 2015 World Cup windfall estimated at £40-50m, could have a product which fewer people – including leading players – want to buy into.
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