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Now as a half-Welsh, half-English rugby fan, Pool A was always going to be a tricky group to manage. Leaving aside the obvious notion of complaining about how three rugby titans managed to end up in the same group, it would have been lovely to have witnessed both England and Wales progressing at the expense of Australia. But that didn’t happen.
England, despite home support, were edged out by Wales in a tactically slow match. And the weekend after, they fell flat against a much more creative Australian side. So who shall be held accountable for this mess that England find themselves in? After all, many were expectant of a positive result in the whole tournament. Along with New Zealand and the aforementioned Aussies, it wasn’t unreasonable to tout England to take home the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of October.
But expectation once again got the better of an English sporting side, and it’s all a bit of a shambles now in hindsight. The only positive one can take from this disappointment is that at least the squad were fairly well disciplined off the pitch. Cut back to 2011, and players like Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton were heavily reprimanded in New Zealand for bringing shame upon the English name with their drunken antics. So at least in 2015, English players only seem to have embarrassed themselves on the pitch.
But that’s not necessarily the point. Always after a sporting failure with such hype surrounding the squad, the finger will immediately turn to the head coach. In this case, it’s Stuart Lancaster. For context, one must be aware of the disarray Lancaster inherited in 2011. Martin Johnson resigned after their dismal adventures in New Zealand, having failed to control and bring the best from his players.
So Lancaster had an uphill battle immediately. Yet he’s done a good job in improving the players’ discipline off the field. For the time being, we’ve not been inundated by the tabloid press with stories of lairy nights out involving key English players. And public perception of the squad so far has been one of positivity and hope. But now it’s all gone wrong, and we need a scapegoat. Step forward Lancaster.
England, although far from perfect, won comfortably against Fiji 35-11 in the opening game. Skip to the week after; the game we all knew would decide Pool A. Many expected an Anglo-Welsh classic, but it wasn’t what we got. Both sides merely exchanged penalties until eventually Wales came out ahead come the final whistle. Only one try was scored by either side, and it was England’s decision to kick to touch rather than go for a safe three points at the end of the match that ultimately decided the match.
This point is the moment that will be remembered by all as the time that England lost the World Cup. If they’d opted for a simple kick for goal, the game would surely have tied at 28-28, with the Pool coming down to who could fare against Australia best. But maybe England felt that they couldn’t beat the Wallabies, so needed to defeat Wales for sure. Who knows what the exact reasoning was, but at the end of the day, England saw their World Cup aspirations lost in a line-out.
Whether it was captain Chris Robshaw’s decision, or a command from up top is irrelevant now, because this tournament will only have one result for England and Stuart Lancaster. There is no way that he will still be in charge come the 6 Nations in February, but whether he walks or is pushed is impossible to predict. Although he has harmonised the squad, he hasn’t really taken the team anywhere technically.
Everyone knew that England vs Australia at Twickenham was going to be the crunch match following the previous week’s victory for Wales. And for the neutral, it was a terrific game of rugby. Both teams (for the most part at least) played exciting rugby, but ultimately it came down to who had the edge in the final 22. And it was Australia. They had creativity when they were close to the English tryline. England didn’t.
33-13 may seem like an unfair scoreline retrospectively, as England were still in with a shout at half-time. But as the clock ticked away and England’s quest for points started to falter, they lost their discipline and resorted to scruffy play, perhaps summed up by Owen Farrell’s sin bin on 70 minutes. Though in this passage of play, he wasn’t the only one who could have been dismissed. This brief snapshot arguably typifies their campaign. When they struggled to break down a stubborn defence, they lost their heads.
Although Lancaster will inevitably be the one to pay for this, one must feel for Mike Brown. He is possibly England’s best player and talisman for English rugby at the moment, yet he will never fall into the same category as Johnny Wilkinson as a timeless England legend. His lack of glory will mean he’ll be forgotten about in 4 years, as age is not on his side when looking forward to the next World Cup. This was his best chance, and now it’s gone.
So for English fans, this autumn of hope and expectation has fizzled out before it’s really begun. And many are now just asking when, not if, coach Stuart Lancaster will depart. By the time you’re reading this, there’s a strong possibility that he’ll already have packed his bags, despite the RFU insisting they will not rush any decisions. So if he is gone, I apologise for wasting your time.