With the European club competitions kicking off this week, our focus would normally be on them, on Glasgow’s chance of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, and on Edinburgh’s attempt to go one step better than last year and win the subsidiary cup.
Speculation, however, is even less profitable than usual because few clubs have yet been able to field their first-choice XV in more than one or two matches. So there is little form to go on. The Guinness Pro12 for instance has so far been dominated by clubs which lost few players to World Cup duty. In short, it’s only now that the club season is really getting going.
It’s probable the RFU will go for a glamour foreign coach – and it’s probable that whoever is chosen will do no better than Stuart LancasterAllan Massie
So it’s hardly surprising that this week more attention has been given to events off the field. Edinburgh’s readiness to let David Denton leave for Bath will have disappointed supporters. It’s all very well saying that Edinburgh have strength in depth in the back-row and that his departure will give opportunities to young players like James Ritchie and Magnus Bradbury. No doubt this is true. Nevertheless Denton was one of the stars of Scotland’s World Cup campaign, and, for many, letting him go speaks of a lack of ambition.
Moreover he’s another internationalist whose game-time can’t now be rationed by Vern Cotter. Going to Bath may make him a better player, but then again it may not. Some profit from a change of club and country; some don’t. In any case there’s no longer any reason to think that the standard is higher in the English Premiership than in the Pro 12.
It’s not surprising that Twickenham has axed Stuart Lancaster – by mutual agreement of course! He was head coach, manager, selector of an England team that performed well below expectations in the World Cup. All the same it seems harsh that he goes and his assistants – the men who actually did the coaching, one assumes – stay. It is perhaps also unwise.
Coaches and managers can learn from failure. It’s only a few months since Lancaster was given an extension to his contract that would have taken him up to the next World Cup, and it’s quite likely that the experience of this campaign would have taught him a lot.
Mistakes made this time wouldn’t have been repeated. Clive Woodward failed in 1999; his team won the World Cup four years later.
Still, the RFU would have been criticised for complacency and obstinacy if they had stood by Lancaster. So he has to be the sacrificial victim. The net will reportedly be cast wide and someone of “global experience” caught. He’ll be hailed as a new broom and prospective hero, whereas he may actually be a poor sucker. For the truth is that the structure of English rugby is – like the structure of French rugby – loaded against the national team. This is why England have won only one Six Nations title since 2003. In both England and France, clubs are the property of rich men who put the interest of their clubs first and the interest of the national team second.
This is why Ireland and Wales, countries with far fewer resources, have dominated the Six Nations over recent years. In New Zealand, the All Blacks come first and New Zealanders must shake their heads in happy wonder when they consider how the game is run in the two countries which should be their strongest northern challengers.
It’s not arrogant of English supporters to think their team should match the All Blacks, but, as things are, it’s absurd. England may win the occasional one-off match against New Zealand or South Africa, but they are not equipped to challenge them regularly. So they clutch at straws. The Sam Burgess story is a case in point. There was a clamour from Press and public to get him into the England team even though he was a long way short of adapting to the Union game. He was to be the saviour, on account of his presence and charisma, and Lancaster would have been pilloried if he had omitted him from his World Cup squad. So he was included at the expense of Luther Burrell, who had played very well in the Six Nations in the spring, and it seems that some members of the squad weren’t happy with this.
Now there is a similar clamour to bring back Sir Clive Woodward in some role or other. The fact that Woodward has been effectively out of the game ever since he was in charge of the disastrous Lions tour in 2005, apparently counts for nothing. He has star quality, you see – just like Sam Burgess.
It’s probable the RFU won’t want him – he has too many enemies at Twickenham. It’s probable they will go for a glamour foreign coach – and it’s probable that whoever is chosen will do no better than Stuart Lancaster. England have lots of good young players but, until they get their domestic structure right and everyone accepts that the national team should come first, they won’t make the best use of their ample resources.
This, of course, is good news for Ireland, Wales and even, one may hope, Scotland.