England Rugby were under no illusions yesterday. Failure was not an option. However, England have become the first hosts in Rugby World Cup history to fail to advance from the pool stages to the quarter-finals.
I have some sympathy with England, even though I was firmly supporting Australia. One of 3 quarter finalists from 2011 were not going to reach that same stage in this tournament because of the draw. Devastatingly for England fans, it is them that has missed the cut and so the postmortem has begun, despite them needing to play Uruguay next week in a match now made effectively meaningless.
Problems began even before the tournament for England. Manu Tuilagi, who had cemented his place as one of the starting centres, admitted to assaulting two female police officers after an altercation with a taxi driver in Leicester city centre and was appropriately removed from contention for the England squad. Next Dylan Hartley received yet another ban, this time for a headbutt, which ruled him out of the opening Fiji game and so he too was removed from the squad.
Despite these setbacks England were feeling positive having beaten Ireland and France in the warm ups and after overcoming understandable nerves a bonus point victory was sealed against Fiji.
The next game was crucial and there was huge debate about the backline selection. Rugby league recruit Sam Burgess was drafted in as a defensive force in the midfield to counter the physicality of Welsh pair Jamie Roberts and Scott Williams and performed reasonably well but made errors stemming from his limited experience of rugby union and particularly in the centre. England had control of the game but Wales produced the magic which England could scarcely dream of to create a try out of nothing and sealed a famous win against incredible odds.
Selection for the Australia game was equally debatable. Burgess was dropped, Brad Barritt moved back across to his more familiar inside centre birth, and Jonathan Joseph came back in having been injured the previous week. The outside half debate continued with Owen Farrell keeping the 10 jersey following a solid performance against Wales. Up front, Australia were bound to pick the phenomenally good Hooper and Pocock combination and England didn’t react to that. As a result Australia dominated the breakdown, Pocock with 3 notable turnovers. More surprisingly the England scrum was taken apart by Australia, highlighting the huge void left by the absences of Dylan Hartley and players such as Alex Corbisiero who has been plagued by injuries.
At half-time England were already 17-3 down having been cut open by Australia’s incisive running but had little response during the first 40. An inury to Jonny May called for desperate measures as George Ford was brought on to add some more creativity and positivity. A try from Anthony Watson was the result of the only meaningful moment of forward running and momentum but the Wallabies still had total control.
Chris Robshaw came in for substantial criticism last week for turning down the opportunity of three points to draw the game and this was his moment to stand up and lead the team. Instead he looked like a lone soldier trying to hold back a green and gold tidal wave. Much was made of his omission from the 2013 Lions squad but perhaps this performance proved that he was not equipped for the Australian back row battle and it was indeed the correct decision to make. Ultimately that is what happened, through no lack of effort but simple ability England were beaten two weeks in a row by better performances, more effective game management and higher skill levels.
This is where Stuart Lancaster comes into the debate. I have no doubts that his team were well prepared but when it came to vital elements such as team selection, which largely dictates strategy, things appeared muddled, with no definitive outside half or centre pairing to manage the game. The Foley/Giteay axis for Australia was composed and controlled the game perfectly. On the opposite side, Farrell received a yellow card, Burgess could equally have gone in the same moment, and that sealed the result. A well finished try from Giteau gave the scoreline a slant more reflective of the game and England were officially out.
It was disappointing to see fans leaving before the final whistle, the same supporters who had built up the players to ‘giants’ with few results or Six Nations trophies to support that, as popularised in a mobile phone provider advert, will now be knocking them back down. Perhaps like the national football team they are victims of their Premiership competition and the foreign imports in those squads.
In 2007 Gareth Jenkins failed to get Wales out of the pool stages and lost his job the following day. Hopefully, a time of reflection and review will occur before a decision is made on the coaching teams future. There is still that game against Uruguay to come after all.
Wales v Australia
Next week Wales and Australia will battle for who finishes top of Pool A. The positive for both teams is that they will fancy beating whoever they face in the quarter finals, be that South Africa, Scotland or even Japan given the way Pool B has developed. Wales would love to get a victory over the Wallabies and exorcise some recent agonising loses but would be confident facing a Springbok team short of their usual aura.