There were a lot of bad jokes at the World Cup and most of them were English. But perhaps the biggest joke of all was when the chairman and chief executive of Premiership Rugby apologised for the performance of the English rugby team. What will happen next, you wonder. Perhaps Vladimir Putin will apologise for the behaviour of the Russian oligarchs.
It did not seem to have occurred to Chairman Smith that the Premiership Clubs might be rather responsible for the antics of the English team. It is the English clubs who have set the standards for these players on and off the field. They are the equivalent of ‘rugby parents.’ But as far as Smith was concerned, it was the bus driver’s fault that the kids had acted up.
Quentin Smith, who was in New Zealand with chief executive Mark McCafferty, said: “They have performed badly on and off the field as a representative body in the eyes of the International Rugby Board and in the eyes of the host nation. Mark and I found the opportunity to apologise to the All Blacks, to the management, the chairman and chief executive in the absence of any contrition.”
“It is not our team, we are here as representatives of the Premiership and all the players but we felt embarrassed there hadn’t been an acknowledgement that the event had been tarnished by bad behaviour. They thanked us. It was not a big statement. It doesn’t have to be very much but it has to demonstrate acknowledgement of what has gone on.”
What has gone on is that the club structure in England has denuded the game. England’s performance at the World Cup did not come from out of left field. A look back at England’s performance in the Six Nations since they won the 2003 World Cup will show how bad the national team has become.
If you remove Italy from the equation on the basis that they are not a front rank rugby power, England have lost over half their games in that period. It is a staggeringly inept statistic for a country with England’s playing resources. France and Wales have won a couple of Grand Slams in that period and Ireland one. But England have scraped a single Championship. Appalling.
The clubs performance in the Heineken Cup is only slightly better. London Wasps have picked up a couple of trophies (and not for some time), but French clubs have won three times and Irish provinces four times in the same period. It’s a dismal record.
New Zealand and South Africa have regulations to protect their player development. Wales and Ireland have effectively brought in provincial systems and, despite having far fewer playing numbers, can compete on equal terms with England and France.
Yet England is bound by a club system that isn’t working. Sir Clive Woodward knows the cause of the problem which is why all the clubs are terrified of his potential appointment. Fran Cotton knows it too, which is why the clubs are already ridiculing his review process. Even the Lions know it, which is why Sir Ian McGeechan was so reluctant to select Englishmen for the tour to South Africa.
Last weekend’s premiership matches involved four New Zealand fly-halves, two from Wales and one from Argentina. England’s player development is a joke. The clubs are only interested in immediate results. They are self-serving businesses with no interest in the health of the nation.
The worst lie peddled about the 2003 World Cup success was it had something to do with the clubs. The hard core of that England team had nearly all come through the old divisional system before club rugby had become a job market for foreigners. Sir Clive Woodward fought the clubs bitterly to get the time with the England squad that he needed. And Woodward looked outside the English game for much of the expertise that he introduced.
If you want to know why England were so bad on and off the field at this World Cup, ask Sir Clive. Then put on the headphones, because the squealing slander that will follow from the Premiership’s finest will be quite deafening.