Yesterday’s leaked report into the putrid stench that was England’s World Cup campaign should act as a catalyst; it is necessary to lay bare the ills, the infighting, the treachery and the despair that turned a capable group of players into a drunken, squalid mess.
The views expressed in the report were brutal, yet they were so damning because they came from the players themselves. Speaking to what they thought was a confidential RPA (Rugby Players’ Association) review, the majority of the 30-man squad ensured that Martin Johnson’s reputation was to die the death of a thousand cuts.
While in New Zealand, Mike Tindall’s night of shame in Queenstown, one which has since cost him his international career and a £25,000 (€29,000) fine, was the only talking point. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that particular incident was no more than the tip of the iceberg, a symptom rather than the problem.
Said aloud, the list of crimes — any one of which on their own could be enough to bring a World Cup campaign to a halt — are astonishing.
Discipline was woeful. The coach, Martin Johnson, betrayed his own personality by turning a blind eye to the actions of those around him. The coaches were not fit for purpose. Players were more interested in endorsements than rugby. The leadership was non-existent. It was seen as ‘not cool’ to be training at 100%. Teams were picked on reputation rather than form. There was no game-plan, either in attack or defence.
All this, it must be remembered, is from the world’s richest union. When with England, there can be no excuses. Players and coaches are given everything they could wish for, from a 10-week stay at an extortionately expensive five-star hotel for pre-season — time that was ‘a f**k up’ according to one eloquent voice in the report — to a classy ferry trip after being knocked out.
True, the RFU is itself a dysfunctional mess, but Johnson and his players were largely cosseted from the issues at Twickenham.
One of the most striking factors of the report is that it was the old guard who were largely to blame. Tindall and Lewis Moody have gone; surely they are to be followed out of the door by Mark Cueto, Nick Easter and Steve Thompson. One theme that pervades the report is that the youngsters were on the right track, only to be led astray by their elders and, supposedly, betters. When their captain is focussing on conversations with his agent and his deputy was caught on CCTV in a compromising situation with a blonde then how can responsibility be shared? And when another senior player confronts two members of the travelling media party to accuse them of ruining England’s World Cup by reporting the story of Tindall’s night out, the plot has been well and truly lost, priorities forgotten.
Johnson has to take his share of the blame; he clearly knew the facts when vacating the stage last week. That he couldn’t discipline those he played with is a damning indictment of his regime, as is the fact that he stuck with coaches — Brian Smith, Mike Ford and John Wells — who were not good enough.
A coach and, by extension, his team, are only as strong as the supporting pillars around them — which demonstrates why England’s quarter-final exit to France was inevitable.
When Tindall transgressed, he should have been sent home. That he wasn’t ensured any excuse was admissible and that discipline was optional. As for the obsession with commercial income, that is perhaps a slight red herring. If you accept professionalism then you have to live with everything that comes with it; the hangers-on, the endorsements, the distractions. At least the players were motivated by something; it hardly seems as if the coaching staff were able to put the fear of God into them.
So what now, after English rugby’s ills have been lain bare? It is, at least, a start. Johnson has gone; his coaches, with the exception of scrum coach Graham Rowntree, will surely follow.
The young guns must take control of the team. Talents such as Wood — who should be made captain — Youngs and Manu Tuilagi can lead England to success at the next World Cup on home soil.
Ultimately, they need a coach who will take charge, and end the culture of privilege and excuses that has been allowed to become endemic. Since 2003, England have believed they are owed a second World Cup. Now they must know that they are owed nothing, and rather have shamed the game of rugby. It is time to pay their dues.