The former England international discusses potential Stuart Lancaster successors and selection policy with HITC Sport.
So, the 2015 Rugby World Cup is over, New Zealand head home as history-making back-to-back champions, southern hemisphere dominance has been re-established, Argentina have taken another positive step forward, as have the likes of Japan and Georgia, Scotland have restored some dented pride, Wales can reflect on what may have been had it not been for a succession of cruel injury blows and England, well...where do you start?
The fallout from a disastrous showing on home soil has now begun, with investigations being held into how things were allowed to go so spectacularly wrong.
Stuart Lancaster, a man handed a six-year contract in October 2014, suddenly finds himself under the brightest of spotlights, with it difficult to see how faith can be maintained in a man – regardless of how talented he may be as a coach – that oversaw one of the darkest hours in England’s proud rugby history.
Change, it would appear, is inevitable, and much needed.
Where, though, do England go from here? If Lancaster is to be relieved of his duties 12 months on from the penning of a deal intended to take him past the next World Cup and through to 2020, who steps into his shoes? Who of the current side is given a reprieve and offered the opportunity to start righting a few wrongs?
All important questions that need to be answered, and ones that are expected to be over the coming weeks.
Various names have been offered as potential candidates to replace Lancaster if he is given the boot, from domestic favourites such as Mike Ford and Rob Baxter, to international contenders such as Eddie Jones – 2003 World Cup winner Sir Clive Woodward has even been mooted for a sensational return.
Former England winger Austin Healey has heard all of this gossip, and has been among those calling for a change in approach, but he believes that the review of England rugby, and the plan of action heading forward, has to run much deeper than merely who will be the next man handed the reins.
Speaking as part of Ladbrokes Rugby’s Who’s Got The Balls campaign, Healey told HITC Sport during a phone interview: “I think you can go round the houses with names and you can keep talking about Eddie Jones or Clive Woodward or Wayne Smith or whoever, but the reality is that it is more about mindset above that coach changing a little bit as well and how England approach their long-term development.
“It’s quite timely really because the Long-Form Agreement between the RFU and the clubs is in negotiation at the minute, so this shouldn’t all be about money and these type of players and England having more time with the players, it should be a little more about control and development of players. For example, and I know this is really left field, if you said, for example, Jack Nowell could be the next (Michael) Hooper or (David) Pocock, then you have an agreement with the clubs that you can develop those players to the benefit of England. If you put a player on a development track, then the clubs get more benefit for it – either more leeway in the wage cap or they get more money back from the RFU – maybe there is some way of doing it.”
Should England be looking at home, then, for someone who knows the domestic game, or spread the net further afield and scour the globe for international coaching pedigree?
Healey added: “I think you probably need a new pair of eyes, someone who looks at the Aviva Premiership from the outside and sees it for what it is, because, particularly this year, the standard has been woeful in terms of all round skill, mindset to attack.
“Teams go from penalty to penalty, scrum to scrum, looking to force errors and squeeze mistakes out of the opposition as opposed to try and let the opposition deal with what you throw at them, in terms of your attacking abilities. Because they are playing with that mindset, when they do try and attack, it is so alien to them that they may as well have feet for hands some of them.”
While tinkering is likely to happen off the field, big calls also need to be made on it as to how England build from this point, and with what personnel.
Healey does not buy into the belief that rugby works in four-year cycles between World Cups and he believes that selecting players in form, regardless of age and experience, remains the best approach for whoever is charged with the task of picking up the pieces.
He said: “There are obviously players in there that are the best players in England, there is no doubting that, whatever style you decide to play. But I don’t believe in this four-year cycle business, I don’t believe that you just say ‘Right, we build towards the next World Cup’. What about the Six Nations? What about the Autumn Internationals before that? Are they just friendlies seen as developing the team before Japan? I don’t buy into that. I think you should want to win every single time you walk out onto the field for England, and win well and develop through that process.
“If the players are the best in their position and they are in good form, they aren’t carrying injuries, then, yes, they should get selected. If there is somebody better or somebody that fits a different style of play better, then I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter who you are and how many caps you have got or whether you are captain or not, you’re gone. It’s the nature of the beast when you play for England that you realise you are only 80 minutes away from not playing for England again.”
Lancaster, the humble man that he is, will likely take any decision regarding his future gracefully.
He will, unquestionably, be desperate to make amends for the mistakes that have been made, but the international sporting arena is a place short on second chances, with lessons often learned the hard way.
What is important from here is that those lessons are heeded and, as Healey suggests, that the building blocks are put in place that allow England to regroup and rebuild in a positive manner.
No-one can offer foolproof guarantees of success, but life can be made considerably easier and those charged with the task of generating results on the field, from the top down, can be given the tools required to repair the damage and get the red rose in full bloom once more.