“Growing Pains” Starring the England Rugby Team

Getty Images

Getty Images

With barely over a month to go into the start of the Rugby World Cup, the DC Sports Dork has not been shy about his passion for Rugby Union. Thus, features on the state of the best nations and players heading into this year’s tournament will be on display. We start with Australia two weeks ago. Next up are the 2003 World Champions, England.

It was just 12 years ago that England were the World Champions. It not only was a culmination of many years of hard work from a golden generation, but it was also the standard-bearer for how a national team should train and develop as the game of rugby was beginning to understand how to become a professional sport.

Eight years later, all those high praises turned to crap. Literally, you can’t help but compare following England from 2005 until 2011 to what it is like following the Washington Redskins right now. Rob Andrew was Dan Snyder. Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton were Mike Shanahan and Joe Gibbs, respectively. And Martin Johnson was so Jim Zorn, it was not even funny.

Even if 2007 was the year England became World Cup finalists, that ended up being more an exception, rather than the rule. Any remains of that core from the 2003 winning team disappeared afterwards except for when Johnny Wilkinson wasn’t injured and showing one too many battle scars when playing. It wasn’t until 2010 when the future finally began to seem bright for a country that lost it’s way in the rugby world. After their Under-20 team finished runners up in the first two Junior Rugby World Championships, England would be runners up of the Six Nations, beat Australia in their own park in the summer and then play some spectacular rugby against the Wallabies in Twickenham in the Autumn.

During that year, a new core was developing. Ben Youngs can run rings around people from the scum-half position. When Dylan Hartley decided not to be the biggest jerk in rugby, he showed the potential to be the best player in the number two jersey in the world. Courtney Lawes showed the raw athleticism and power to be an England second rower for a decade. Manu Tuilagi can run over people with his humongous thighs to score tries by the boatload. Dan Cole could scrummage his way into 100 caps.

That was what the future looked like. In the short term, it wasn’t good enough. Too much promise led to too much overconfidence in 2011. England may have won the six nations that year, but they did so after getting humiliated on the last game of the tournament against Ireland. Afterwards, the cracks would show gradually. First, it was a convincing loss to Wales at the Millennium Stadium during a World Cup warm-up game. Then, unconvincing wins over Scotland and Argentina in the group stages would prove to be a perfect predictor for their quarterfinal loss to France. They were second best in every aspect of the game, and most importantly, they were distracted from all the tabloid articles they created for having one too many misadventures on their nights out in New Zealand. When all the carnage was done, a report was presented to England’s headquarters discussing what needed to be done to make sure future World Cups would not have the same result ever again and they did not mince their words.

In came Stuart Lancaster, a former Physical Education teacher and RFU Elite Rugby Director. Before becoming head coach, Lancaster oversaw the England’s reserve teams (also known as the Saxons), as well as the youth sides that would dominate the aforementioned international tournaments during his tenure. His teaching was needed in the worst way as an even newer generation of players were brought in from day one of his tenure. Chris Robshaw would captain the side and in came more younger, but this time, hungrier and more professional youngsters in Alex Corbisiero, Ben Morgan, Tom Wood, Owen Farrell and Geoff Parling.

Later in 2012, Joe Launchbury, Billy and Mako Vunipola, Mike Brown and Joe Marler would add additional graft and character to a side that would achieve so much so early on. After finishing runners-up in the Six Nations and having so many near misses against Australia and South Africa in the Summer and Autumn, England would go on to have their greatest victory in decades over the defending champions New Zealand. They didn’t just beat the All Blacks, however. They out-hustled them, out-tackled them and played a balanced attacking game that took the entire rugby world by surprise. That victory was supposed to be the beginning of something bright for England.

It was also the beginning of so many false hopes too. In the 2013 Six Nations, England would gradually get worse throughout the tournament until they succumbed to an embarrassing defeat in Cardiff to Wales for the Championship decider. England would bring more momentum into that Autumn’s Internationals with a win over Australia and a close defeat to New Zealand only to see it burst with a loss to a struggling France side on the first day of the 2014 Six Nations. They would beat eventual Champions Ireland later on, but it was not enough to meet the much higher expectations England fans were expecting out of their newer version of the Red Rose.

The last 12 months could not be any more similar for Lancaster’s men from the results point of view. Losses to New Zealand, South Africa and France were sandwiched in between two wins over Les Bleus and their second straight victory over Wales. With less than three years since their famous victory at Twickenham against New Zealand, England are coming into the World Cup with less distractions and bad eggs on the team but have also added as much uncertainty as ever.

Hartley is no longer on the team after being suspended again for headbutting Jamie George in a club semifinal game last May. Tuilagi is also not on the squad as punishment for assaulting a taxi driver and two female police officers. With Alex Corbisiero left out of the squad due to lack of form from injuries, only Hartley’s replacement at hooker (Tom Youngs) is expected to start for England in this Autumn’s World Cup after starting more than one game for the British and Irish Lions in 2013. What happened to all that promise?

Welp, a newer generation of exciting backs has come in to take their place. George Ford, Jonathan Josepth, Henry Slade, Johnny May, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson have all been cementing their place as mainstays for the England team but have only done so within the last year. And then there’s Sam Burgess.

Despite starting to play rugby union for the first time less than a year ago and just making his international debut this summer, Burgess has received high praise from coaches and current players alike. Former players: not so much. For better or for worse, England are stuck with him playing at center despite his club team, Bath, playing him as a back row player at the end of last season. The hope is to have the former world rugby league player of the year to bring his combination of size, thundering hits and passing skills in the latter stages of a game. Also, his character on the training ground and off the field have been described in such high regard that the owner for his former rugby league club called him “the sparkly eyed man”.

With all the exciting attacking talent available, it seems for every passing game that England are trying to abandon their ethos for how to play rugby. In year’s past, England were [in]famous for wanting to slow the game down, out-scrum opponents until their “man-shamed” and feed the ball to their forwards until their opponents are…welp…insert a less sexist adjective here. Nowadays, players like Ford, May and Joseph are smaller than your average England player, but so fast with the ball in hand that it is if multiple Jason Robinson flashbacks occur in every game.

In doing so though, their two World Cup warm-up games against France have proven that England may have forgotten the foundations of every World Champion, let alone every England team. The games will get tighter, and like in ice hockey, the amount of open space will be that much smaller and try scoring will be much more difficult. As a result, the foundation of great tackling, little to no conceding of penalties and taking advantage of penalties will rule supreme. It is what Clive Woodward’s men did so well during the beginning of the 21st Century more than any team in the world. Can England find a way to accomplish that for less than 50 days starting next month?

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