Please read this. Please listen. I doubt that you will do either, but I urge you to do so for your own sake, and for that of the nation.
Let me start by saying that you have had an excellent record as the England head coach, of that there is no doubt. It has been very hard to criticise you and, contrary to what you might believe, most English rugby supporters do not want to criticise you. You are very well liked, you are entertaining and charismatic and you have been a real breath of fresh air. You have an astute rugby brain and, by and large, the results have been excellent. However there is a but ……and that but is that results and performances are beginning to unravel.
A defeat to Ireland in the cauldron of the Aviva Stadium in Dublin at the end of last season, a very poor performance recently at Twickenham in defeating a severely weakened Welsh side when England did not score a single point in the last 60 minutes and now this, a comprehensive defeat against the vociferous Scots at a very vocal Murrayfield.
This is not just once, not twice but now three times and things need to change. As things stand, this team, playing as it is, will not win the World Cup which I’m sure you recognise yourself. After all you have openly stated that the World Cup is your holy grail and you need to give this your best shot as of course you fully appreciate and understand.
In the light of these recent poor performances, you need to have a good hard look at yourself, which I am sure you are. You need to become less stubborn and have more of an open mind. You have witnessed these performances at first hand and I’m sure that you have watched them over and over again and will understand the problem
Granted only you and your players and coaches are in ‘the camp’ and that you know the players better than anyone, but sometimes you need to stake take a step back and view things afresh.
You are very much your own man and have your own thoughts, and so you should. Quite rightly, you will not be influenced by the preying press and the manic media, but you seem to go out of your way to be different which, on occasions seems to be to the detriment of the team. It seems as though your loyalty to certain players is at times a little misplaced and misguided.
Don’t get me wrong, loyalty is an admirable quality. Successful teamwork is based on a group of individuals coming to together and being familiar with each other, gaining experience and confidence, sharing the highs and the lows for their mutual benefit and for that of the team. Consistency of selection is an essential ingredient in achieving this. It is a good thing, especially for a team that is winning or showing significant signs of improvement but when a side is struggling or going backwards then things need to be done and changes need to be made.
As much as you might not like to admit it, you will know in your own mind that your team is on the wane. They have been outfought and outbattled now on a couple of occasions, which you will clearly not be pleased about and there is little solace from scoring a few late tries against an Italian side that really are very poor.
So what are the problems, what needs to be done and what changes need to be made.
Firstly let’s consider the attack which, in recent big matches, has been pedestrian and ponderous and offers very little threat. Quite alarmingly, there appear to be no planned backs moves especially off first phase ball,which are essential to find space and create opportunities and overlaps. In subsequent phases, it appears as though it is each man for himself, making individual forays without any sense of team structure or idea as to how to unlock a defence. They appear devoid of ideas. There is a distinct absence of flair and imagination, with very little spark or ‘x’ factor.
If you are to keep the same players, then you will need to spend far greater time on the training ground working on some set moves and plays. As you will have witnessed from watching the Aviva Premiership, all the best teams have pre-planned moves, such as double banking, which are essential in these days when defences are so well organised. This only gets a team so far, but at least it’s a start and bring some structure and cohesion to a team’s attacking play. The very best teams are becoming so sophisticated that they are creating opportunities and scoring tries from distance due to their dexterity and skill at implementing carefully planned strategies. This is even more important at international level.
It could be argued that a largely successful team with naturally talented ‘footballers’ should be able to work this out themselves in the heat of battle, which clearly they must. However, whilst this England team comprises decent, honest and hard working players they do lack natural flair and spark. This does need serious addressing. Whilst the Scottish outside half Finn Russell is very inconsistent and is far from the finished article, he does at least play with his head up and has an appreciation of space.
Furthermore, and arguably related to this lack of attacking prowess, is the fact that the team win very slow ball, which gives opposition defences plenty of time to re-set and get back into position. The forwards, and the back row particularly, need to be far more dynamic at clearing out rucks and also, in open play, they need to take the ball at pace, not standing still.
It was embarrassing at how easily the Scots counter-rucked to win turnover ball. A side that keeps taking the ball at pace and hitting hard is one that gets over the gain line, and ties in the opposition’s defence rather than allowing them to fan out across the pitch. Punching closer to the breakdown can also have the same affect, which the scrum-half also needs to be mindful of too so as to keep the opposing back row interested, which should ultimately create space out wide.
This is not rocket science. These are fairly simple principles but it does require the right personnel to be effective.
So how can this be achieved.
Firstly, there needs to be more creativity in the backs, players who can make a difference, who can hurt the opposition with their flair, creativity, power and pace. When an opposing team assess England’s backs, they will be mindful of the pace of the wingers, Anthony Watson, Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly; they will recognise the all round quality of Owen Farrell and will keep a close eye on Danny Care, particularly when he comes off the bench but, other than that, they will not be unduly concerned.
George Ford is a good player and he has served England well but he does not control a game. Whilst he works reasonably well in tandem with Owen Farrell, ultimately this combination is not the answer. To win a World Cup, a team really needs to have a world class fly half who can dictate a game, who can put his team in the right areas of the pitch with his kicking game yet have the vision to see space and create opportunities, both with ball in hand and running himself or by putting others into space.
I fully appreciate that this is a dilemma for you, as you have invested so much time in Ford, and he has rarely let you down, but I seriously question whether he is the man to play in such a pivotal position to win a World Cup. I keep harping back to the World Cup but, as you have stated, this is your ultimate goal. You, and your team, aspire to be the best, and quite rightly so.
A change, or changes, need to be made now to this crucial position, to allow new players the opportunity to bed in before it becomes too late. So what options do you have ?
You must be applauded for your general strategy of bringing young players into the England set up, to give them a taste for what international rugby is about, to understand you and your principles and philosophy and to try and build for the future. Such players include the likes of Piers Francis, the Northampton fly half, who has yet to prove himself and Marcus Smith, the young Harlequin. He is most certainly a danger man, who is extremely talented and can turn a match. He is definitely a man for the future yet at the moment he is still a little too raw for the international stage and has not yet have the ability to close out a match or perform when the pressure is really on.
Of the younger crop, Alex Lozowski could be the best bet. He is extremely naturally talented, has searing pace and an eye for a gap, as well as a good reading of a match. He has already shown in his cameo appearances for England thus far that he is calm and largely unflappable, a player extremely comfortable in the international arena.
However, you seem to continually ignore the most talented and experienced fly half in the Premiership. The man who has a huge appreciation of space and and innate ability to read a game and find, or put others, into gaps, that man being Danny Cipriani. Whilst he may have lost some of the explosive pace that he had as a youngster, he is now older and wiser and is currently in arguably the best form of his life.
If not Cipriani or Lozowski, then you must pick Farrell at fly half, which is arguably his best position, and then allow for more pace and creativity outside. Whatever option you chose, you must do it quickly.
The other obvious problem position in the backs is at full back. Like some of your other older lieutenants such as Dylan Hartley and Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown is another who has performed admirably for you but he really is not of the required standard to win a World Cup. Your loyalty has extended too far. You defend him to the hilt and you became visibly quite agitated after the Welsh game but really Mike Brown is a one trick pony, which surely you must recognise and you have just been particularly stubborn about the whole thing. He can catch the high ball and is reasonably reliable in defence but offers very little in attack and his shortcomings were hugely exposed at Murrayfield. He lacks pace, he never passes and when he tries to pass, he cannot do it. He is simply not good enough. The obvious answer is to select Anthony Watson at full back for you have a plethora of different wingers in the form of Jack Nowell, Jonny May and Elliot Daly.
Interestingly neither Ford nor Brown, nor Hartley nor Robshaw, were anywhere near selection for last summer’s Lions Tour, and that arguably tells its own story. Other renown international coaches saw it fit not to include any of them, but you seem to operate in a haze sometimes and appear blinded to their deficiencies. Your obstinacy could be your greatest enemy.
Furthermore, you talk about the need for ‘finishers’, your word, and you have initiated this very successfully. This has been your mantra and a good one too, applauded all round. Players who can come on and make a difference, who can change a game which, after all, is what you want your replacements to do. Your use of Danny Care has been excellent and he has scored lots of tries coming off the bench. Similarly Ben Youngs has looked a revelation when coming on as a replacement.
So, why was it when Ben Youngs should get injured that you decided to then pick Richard Wigglesworth as the reserve scrum half ? Granted you were a little unlucky with the injury to Ben Youngs, but you had not made adequate provision for a third scrum half. Wigglesworth really wasn’t in the picture but you decided to pick him against those clamouring for the likes of Dan Robson. Being your own man and slightly stubborn you were not going to go for the obvious pick, the man who the pundits and the press would have selected, plus the majority of the watching English rugby public. Oh no, you were not going to be influenced by any others but instead decided to pull something of a rabbit from the hat. In fact this was actually no great surprise in reality, because you like to cause a stir and go left field.
Robson is arguably the form scrum half in the Premiership, a man who has pace to burn and can make things happen, a man who might be termed a ‘finisher’ in his own right, which his catalogue of tries bears testament too. Surely picking Wigglesworth was a mistake, which you must recognise, for he goes completely against all your principles of players who can change a game.
Wigglesworth is experienced, he can offer a good left foot and is a safe pair of hands but adds nothing whatsoever from a attacking perspective. Indeed he has no pace and he is just the sort of man to bring on when you want to slow the game down, not quicken it up. It was very noticeable and how you were very reluctant to bring him on in the last two matches, and you only seemed to do so in the final few minutes as if to prove a point, when you knew that in your heart of hearts that a tired Danny Care was far more likely to score a try against the Scots than Wigglesworth. You must rethink this quickly. If not Robson, then Exeter’s Will Chudley offers a similar package to Robson, pace and an eye for a gap, absolutely critical when trying to chase a game.
Insofar as finishers are concerned, whilst you have a plethora of decent wingers, you seem to continually ignore Christian Wade, the quickest, most slippery and most renown try scorer in the Premiership. He scores tries for fun, he does it every week, and has an eye for the gap. Whilst understandably his defence has been questioned in the past, this part of his game has improved immeasurably and is unrecognisable from a few years ago. You were quite happy to pick Denny Solomona for the summer tour to Argentina, when he had only just converted to rugby union and suddenly pledged his allegiance to England and his defence was absolutely dreadful, which you rightly acknowledged there and then. Yet you still picked him again.
You can certainly be accused of often sending out the wrong messages, when you need a certain consistency as to what skills and talents you require, Wigglesworth being the classic example.
As to the forwards, by and large you have got this right, and the introduction of fresh, young, dynamic and hungry talent is very much a good thing.
However, you do seem to want to persist with the ageing warriors, such as Captain Dylan Hartley and Chris Robshaw. Both have been very loyal servants but sometimes you need to look forward and pick men who will make a difference in the future not those who are surviving on past glories. Everyone accepts that Hartley has been a good leader for you and clearly, from what you say, has a big influence in the dressing room but his influence on the pitch is waning. Here you have a ready-made replacement in the form of Jamie George, a British Lion no less, who is an excellent player, far more dynamic than Hartley and he made a big impression on the Lions tour in the summer.
In the back row, whilst experience is important, and it is understandable to some degree why you have persisted with Robshaw, but his best days are clearly behind him. A loyal and honest servant yes, but a potential World Cup winner, unlikely. Ditto James Haskell.
You must be congratulated for selecting the likes of Sam Simmonds and Sam Underhill, who have both made an impression. You could even go one step further and consider the likes of Jack Willis, who is taking the Premiership by storm. The future is certainly not in the form of Robshaw and Haskell. I can understand that you want to balance experience and youth in the make up of your back row, but it was painfully obvious from the past two matches that England’s back row is far too slow and needs reconsidering.
It is fully accepted that you have suffered greatly from the injury to the talismanic Billy Vunipola and, added to that, Nathan Hughes is only just returning from injury, but you do have plenty of resource in this department and there should be no excuses. Consider the situation that Wales found themselves in, no Toby Faletau or Sam Warburton yet Aaron Shingler, Josh Navidi and Ross Moriarty have really stood up and performed heroically.
Furthermore you need to closely look at the make up of the back row for Courtney Lawes, whilst strong, powerful and reasonably athletic for a lock, is not the answer as a flanker for he is too slow and lacks mobility for this position. Furthermore, he has a propensity for giving away penalties which could be extremely costly, as evidenced by his sheer stupidity by his use of the boot in an offside position right in front of the referee’s nose at Murrayfield.
To conclude, this letter may seem like a mountain of criticism but it is not intended to be that way. You have performed admirably to date, your record has been far better than any other of the Northern Hemisphere teams since you took over but I know that you want more.
You aspire to be the best, which is why you took the job in the first place. You have certainly turned things round from the mess of the last World Cup that you inherited, but you have now reached a critical time in the preparation of your team. A win over the French won’t paper over the cracks, nor will a victory over Ireland at Twickenham in a few weeks time.
Your team needs to be able to go to the difficult places and win. All was looking good following your successes in Australia the previous summer, but defeats in Dublin and Edinburgh don’t bode well. The warning signs are there.
You will recall that the England side that won the World Cup back in 2003 knew how to win, not just at home, but away, in those difficult places when the odds were stacked against them and the opposing supporters were baying for blood. They had been there, they had done it and they had proved to themselves that they could handle the pressure. This current team are sadly coming up short, they are simply not good enough.
This letter simply highlights a few home truths which, as an intelligent and clever rugby man, you will have already recognised. You must eat some humble pie and make some of these hard and difficult decisions before it is too late. You have been incredibly loyal which, as I have alluded to, can be hugely beneficial, but not when to the detriment of the progress of the team. Rugby moves on whereas this England rugby team are falling behind.
I am not calling for wholesale changes as you have the making of a very good side but, as you understand, that is not enough. You want to be the best and you have the player pool and resources to get as close as humanly possible.
Some changes and some tinkering is absolutely essential, right now, if your England team is to emerge from Japan victorious in the Autumn of 2019.
Take heed Eddie, for you have been warned.
Best wishes and good luck
For and on behalf of the English Rugby Nation