R.Rarely have Ireland and England approached the final day of a Six Nations championship with such contrasting expectations. For Irish rugby, these really are the best of times. For their white-shirted cousins, another winter of despair is brewing. It’s hard not to see it as a Dickensian cautionary tale about two unions reaping the results of their respective eras of wisdom and stupidity.
And if Ireland complete a grand slam at Aviva Stadium and reinforce their status as the game’s No. 1 international team less than six months before the Rugby World Cup, the comparisons to England’s current situation will be even more stark. A great opportunity lies ahead, but Ireland has actually long since galloped off the horizon in terms of its development pathways and administrative vision.
How did it come to this? Last week England were humiliated – there is no other word to describe it – 53-10 at home to France. And yet, when an equally well-equipped French side went to Dublin last month, they lost 32-19. Speaking to numerous current and former international players and managers over the past few days, none foresee anything other than another sobering English defeat. “I fear for them this weekend,” an informed insider murmured. He is not alone in his opinion.
Clearly England has no divine right to success. It’s also just 28 months since they beat Ireland for the third time in a row. But with the Irish now being increasingly led upwards by Andy Farrell, part of England’s inner sanctum until 2015, with Mike Catt, Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree also playing influential roles across the Irish Sea, it becomes increasingly hard to applaud the strategic brilliance of the Rugby Football Union’s policy makers.
Under Lancaster, for the sake of comparison, England lost just once each in the Six Nations to Ireland and France between 2012 and 2015. Their abrupt exit from the group stage at the 2015 Rugby World Cup subsequently surpassed all But, behind the scenes, England Under-20 teams were seriously competitive and delivered a core of talented young players to Eddie Jones, Lancaster’s successor.
Lancaster, who have since helped Leinster become the highest performing provincial team in Europe, are exceptionally well placed to point out how and why the English game has subsequently faltered. “It’s frustrating when you’re looking from the outside,” he told The Guardian this week. “I felt that the path we were following between 2011 and 2015 was the right one in terms of integrating relations between clubs and countries and aligning national programs within the union. I still get that feeling of: ‘We’re all in this together’, for the clubs to be successful in Europe and for England to be successful, that’s the right strategy.”
In Ireland, with just four provincial teams, around 130 professional players, central contracts and a conveyor belt of high-quality schools, it has found much greater cohesion. “Ireland are not necessarily born with more talent, but I do think they create more talent within their system at the moment. It is definitely an advantage to have central recruitment and a model where the club and the province are working together. If you compare that to England, you’re choosing between 11 Premiership clubs, with lots of changes in managerial teams and a lack of joint thinking between club and country. It makes it challenging.”
Another of Lancaster’s pertinent observations is that England have allowed an immense amount of insight to come out of the Twickenham gate and cheer on their rivals. Farrell, Shaun Edwards in France and now Jones back in Australia are excellent examples. Lancaster is now also set to take charge of Racing 92 in Paris, where his role will be to improve more French international players such as Gaël Fickou, Cameron Woki and Nolann Le Garrec.
“There’s a lot of knowledge of systems and structures that indirectly helps the country you’re going to,” Lancaster says. “Or directly in Andy’s case.” Other nations seem to be more aware of this future danger. “New Zealand goes to great lengths to retain intellectual property. When I approached Wayne Smith about joining England in 2012, New Zealand Rugby found out and said, ‘No way.’ They didn’t want me to pass on what he had learned in New Zealand.”
For those who were involved in English rugby two decades ago, when Clive Woodward was on his way to World Cup glory in 2003, there is no time to waste if the RFU wish to change the prevailing course. Simon Halliday, the former England center and former chairman of the European Professional Club Rugby, has also seen up close how Ireland have bounced back since 2015-16, when none of their provincial teams reached the Champions Cup quarter-finals. “I think it was Mick Dawson from Leinster who looked at me squarely and said: ‘I wouldn’t worry about us, Simon. And here’s why,’” Halliday recalls. “They talked about its structure and how it was being built. You could tell they had things absolutely figured out.”
Not so in England right now, clearly. The list of charges is long: narrowing the path of talent too early, not prioritizing the development of players between the ages of 18 and 22, allowing some club academies to prioritize their needs over individual or national interest. “People closest to the game than me say it will take us years to get back,” says Halliday. “I am afraid that we have wasted several years denying what the reality was. And now we are where we are. It’s going to take some pretty tough yardage and some pretty tough calls.
“The structures within the RFU are all wrong. They have to check them and fix it. If we don’t come forward and say we need to restructure now, I don’t see how anything will change. There’s no point sugarcoating it and I think [RFU chief executive] Bill Sweeney knows that these are important turning points. They could start by separating the professional game from the amateur game. That is the key. If you don’t do that in England, you just have a leadership mess. There are some pretty ugly precedents in English football. If you are wrong, you will spend many years in the desert. You fall behind because your structures or priorities are wrong.
With Ireland Under-20 also chasing a Grand Slam this weekend, again at England’s expense in Cork on Sunday, it could still be that things get worse before they get better. “If you told me what Ireland looks like between 2023 and 2027, I would say it looks as strong as it does now,” Lancaster emphasizes. “As France will be.”
So even if England does keep some face within the Aviva, in short, the outlook is deeply problematic. In the areas of attack detail, mentality, comparative skills and trainer inspiration, there is only one Thoroughbred chasing Grand Slam in this weekend’s race. Coincidentally, it is also the 50th anniversary of John Pullin’s immortal post-match phrase: “We may not be very good, but at least we show up”, after his England team, unlike Scotland and Wales the year before, He traveled to Ireland in 1973. at the height of the troubles. More or less the same, in a pure rugby context, is relatively true now.