The former England international discusses the need for top talent to better itself abroad and picking the best players for each position with HITC Sport.
The queue to berate England on the back of their rather shambolic showing at the 2015 Rugby World Cup appears to be lengthening by the day, with players past and present joining pundits and media personalities to offer their take on what went wrong and what needs to happen in order to put things right.
It is, of course, easy to kick a deflated team when they are down, but all of those involved in becoming the first host nation to crash out of the tournament at the group stage will acknowledge that they have let themselves and their country down.
For some, including head coach Stuart Lancaster, the end of the international road will have been reached, with failings on the grandest of stages seeing them pay the ultimate professional price.
Such decisions are for another day, with a full investigation of a troubled campaign set to be undertaken before calls are made on the way forward, and who will be selected to lead that quest on and off the field.
What is clear, though, is that change is needed and that painful lessons must be heeded.
England were fancied by many to go deep into their own event, despite concerns regarding a lack of cohesion when it came to the selection of a settled side and the building of combinations in important areas of the field.
In the end, those fears proved to be well founded, with the 2003 champions and 2007 finalists looking disjointed, short on ideas and leadership and with too many square pegs shoved into round holes both in a selection and tactical sense.
There is plenty of talent there, that much is without question, but England must find of way of maximising the ability at their disposal and of ensuring that the best XV available to them is sent into battle each and every time they take to the field.
That is a view shared by former utility back Austin Healey who, speaking as part of Ladbrokes Rugby’s Who’s Got The Balls campaign, told HITC Sport during a phone interview: “The big thing is, how you change these guys that should progress through age in the team into becoming world-class players. And that’s a big question. Whoever takes over, that should be their main aim, to have five or six guys in a world XV over the coming years. That’s about developing these players beyond where they are currently being developed.
“If you are playing on the wing in England, you probably touch the ball maybe double figures in a game. Play on the wing in New Zealand or Australia, you are touching the ball 20, or maybe 25, 30 times in a game. My suggestion would be for some of your top players to go and play in the Super Championship in the southern hemisphere. If you are a back, you have got to get out of the northern hemisphere if you want to improve. That’s where the biggest problem is.”
Another part of the problem is that players prepared to better themselves outside of England will find themselves overlooked as part of a questionable selection policy.
There are ways around those restrictions, though, as Australia showed with Matt Giteau but England failed to do so with his Toulon teammate Steffon Armitage, and Healey thinks the red rose coaching staff need to be ‘more savvy’.
He added: “The rule states, the international rules, that during a World Cup period, you can’t restrict anybody’s trade, so you can’t say that you have to play in France or you have to play in England. Actually, those boys could have come back. What they should have done is say, ‘I’m going on loan to Bath at the start of the season’, in the summer come back and gone on loan to Bath, or any Premiership club or Welsh club, it doesn’t matter, and then they could have cancelled that loan after the World Cup and gone back to play for Toulon. It’s just about being a bit more savvy about it all. That’s another reason why Stuart Lancaster has let himself down.”
Failure cannot be attributed to the absence of a select few, though, with decisions that backfired in spectacular fashion having been made across the board – both during the World Cup and in the years which preceded it as England failed to build the required momentum and continuity.
Healey said: “Unfortunately that’s because Lancaster and his coaching staff, they made some big mistakes. They panicked before a World Cup rather than say, like everyone else would say, let’s find out who our best player is, say Sam Burgess looks like a great player but he isn’t ready yet, he might be ready in Japan so we won’t pick him, we’ll pick Eastmond – I don’t know why you wouldn’t pick Kyle Eastmond or you wouldn’t pick (Henry) Slade at 12.
“These situations should have been part of long-term planning, but unfortunately every decision we seem to have seen from England has been retrospective.”
We are, unfortunately, firmly back in that boat, with decisions now been made on the back of a disappointment, rather than months/years ago in prevention of it.
There are, however, four months until the 2016 Six Nations and another four years until the next World Cup in Japan, which really should be ample time for the wrongs of 2015 to be righted and for England to be considerably more competitive than they have been of late.