Long before Twickenham first heard it, Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a funeral hymn.
And it seemed so again on Saturday night, sung low and slow for a last time when there were 15 minutes left to play. One final, futile, attempt by 80,000 fans to spur this England team on into a performance worthy of their support, and of the tournament.
Owen Farrell had kicked a penalty and the side were seven points behind. That was as good as it got. England, the most well-resourced rugby nation in the world, with more money to spend and more players to use than every other country, were knocked out of their own tournament after just three matches. After four years of planning, their overall performance in this World Cup will be remembered as one of the most feeble in the history of English sport, mitigated only by the superb quality of the two teams who beat them.
First, the positives. No one jumped off a ferry. And no dwarves were harmed along the way. What else? Stuart Lancaster pointed out after the match that “there are a lot of good young players in that team”, and that between them they have the makings of a good side. And he was right. Only trouble was, it wasn’t out on the pitch. It only ever existed in the minds of those of us who believed in them – like myself and the other five pundits who predicted in Saturday’s Guardian that England would win this game. And as deluded as that turned out to be, next to what Lancaster had to say in his post-match press conference it sounded utterly sane. “We have come up short in these two games but you shouldn’t take away everything we have done in the last three and a half years,” he said, “which has been very positive for the majority of the games. We’ve not lost many big games, and certainly not by that margin.”
That is the standard, it seems, by which we should judge this team. “We’ve not lost many big games.” Apart from the last two. “And certainly not by that margin.” Apart from this one. As for everything else they’ve done in those “three and a half years”, it adds up to four second-place finishes in the Six Nations, two autumn international victories against Australia and another against New Zealand. That’s the grand sum of the good work.
All of which was excusable, if you allowed that short-term results in the Six Nations could be sacrificed for long-term gains at this World Cup. And that, after all, was the design Lancaster had in mind all along. Or so he said when he first took charge. “We want to be in a position by 2013, 2014, to have a side ready to win in 2015,” he told us in his very first press conference.
At this rate of progress, it feels as if Lancaster will finally have his 2015 team ready sometime the year after next. He seems to think that team building is a job akin to painting the Forth Bridge, something that simply goes on and on, starting over and again, without ever actually finishing.
Even now, after this, he produced the bizarre observation that what was important now was “to finish strongly next week”, as if a 50-point victory against Uruguay was going to spark a lot of optimistic talk about England’s chances in 2019.
Lancaster’s favourite book is The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He seems to have taken the sentiment a little too much to heart and missed the rather important point that for all his work on improving the 49ers’ team culture, Walsh did actually win the Super Bowl three years after he first took charge.
Flash back again to Lancaster’s very first press conference after he had been given the job on a permanent basis, on 29 March 2012. England had finished second in the Six Nations with him as caretaker, a few months after Martin Johnson’s side had come unstuck in the tournament in New Zealand. Lancaster said that he would take two years to build “the necessary experience and to develop leadership on and off the field” that England would need to win this World Cup. The players, he said, would have to develop “an intuitive sense of what they’re going to do under pressure”, because “the pressure that will come on in the World Cup is unique.”
Looking back, it is clear Lancaster had no idea. He had never experienced, could never have imagined, the head-spinning, ear-ringing, stomach-twisting pressure of this occasion. His team have looked frightened in all three matches. They faltered against Fiji, flapped against Wales, and finally fell face first against Australia.
The “experience” that Lancaster promised, the “leadership”, the “intuitive sense” of what to do under pressure, were no more evident now, when they England most needed it, than it has been at any point since he first took charge of the team. They were outplayed in all aspects of the game by a superb Australia side who look like genuine contenders for the title.
Even now England’s tournament is over, you wonder if Lancaster knows what his best team is and how he wants them to play, whether they are better off with Farrell or George Ford at fly-half, why exactly he selected Henry Slade and Sam Burgess in his 31-man squad ahead of the two men he had been picking for the last two years, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell. Lancaster and his team have been out of their depth. They are done paddling around in the deep end now.
This article was written by Andy Bull at Twickenham, for theguardian.com on Sunday 4th October 2015 01.02 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010