England’s pathways system was destroyed and left them playing catch-up
Why do empires fall? Australian author Max Barry argues it is not for lack of power. It is the opposite. “Their power lulls them into comfort. They become undisciplined. Those who had to earn power are replaced by those who have known nothing else.”
And so it is with the Rugby Football Union who for years boasted a world-leading coach and youth development programme, with the England Under-20s winning the Junior World Championship three times in four years and providing a steady pipeline of talent to the senior team. Through neglect, complacency and almost willful sabotage the foundations of English rugby were allowed to crumble and now the consequences are being felt. A run of three successive two-win Six Nations campaigns is not a blip. It is a trend. Particularly when the England Under-20 team also finished fourth, below Italy
It is well documented that the current Ireland set-up is spearheaded by the coaches who the RFU jettisoned in 2015. Stuart Lancaster is Leinster's senior coach, Munster are now led by Graham Rowntree while Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and his assistant Mike Catt, are now basking in the glow of a Grand Slam.
What is less well known is that RFU never held an exit interview with Lancaster or his assistants. All that experience and crucial learnings were just left in the ether and are now directly benefiting Ireland. Contrast that with how ferociously the New Zealand Rugby Union protects its intellectual property, particularly when the RFU came sniffing around Wayne Smith, and how it retains contact with all its foreign-based coaches.
With Eddie Jones winning a Grand Slam in 2016 and another title the year after, the cracks in the English system were not yet coming to surface. Behind the scenes, however, there was turmoil.
In 2016, Dean Ryan was appointed as the Rugby Football Union’s head of international player development. This effectively replaced the role that Lancaster held before he became England head coach in 2011.
Ryan was always a curious appointment. Previously director of rugby with Worcester Warriors and Gloucester, he had little background in development. He was, however, close friends with Nigel Melville, then the RFU’s director of professional rugby and he wasted no time stamping his mark.
England Under-20s coach Martin Haag was let go four months after winning the Junior World Championship in 2016. Two years later, John Fletcher and Peter Walton, the enormously popular coaches of the England Under-18s, were sacked in the middle of a coaching conference, to a chorus of mutiny among current and former players on social media.
Others who left during this period included Kevin Bowring and Richard Shuttleworth within the coaching development programme, Russell Earnshaw, Alun Powell, the head of regional academies who has taken up a similar role with the English Cricket Board, sports psychologist James Bell and strength and conditioning coach Neil Taylor. It amounted to a wholesale gutting of the development pathway as well as a move towards a more structured approach.
“There were huge philosophical differences around what coaching and development looked like,” said Earnshaw, who left his role as RFU performance coach in 2018. “When someone does not know the principles of play or that we are an evasion sport then you probably realise at that point you are going to be on different pages.”
Ryan would argue that his hands were forced by budget cuts. “When I first came we had a £750,000 budget for coach development, now we have nothing,” Ryan said in a newspaper interview in 2019. “The department here has just been squeezed and squeezed.”
Earnshaw says that there are a lot of good people back involved at Twickenham, but the damage caused by letting so much expertise go will take years to rebuild. “Development takes a long time to build but can be destroyed quickly,” he said. “It is not just the expertise, it is the relationships that they have built up with clubs, schools and parents. That level of trust takes years and years to build.”
It was not just the relationships further down the pyramid that were being damaged. Jones’ public spat with Bath owner Bruce Craig, whom he called the “Donald Trump of rugby”, in 2018 was symbolic of a breakdown in relations with Premiership clubs. At least one Premiership club banned England coaches from visiting their training ground, although Borthwick is already mending fences in this regard.
There was little coordination around the programmes for some England Under-20 players who ended up playing as few as half a dozen matches a season. This is an area that urgently needs to be addressed by next year’s Professional Game Agreement between Premiership Rugby and the RFU. In Ireland, talent is funnelled through the schools and academy system into the provinces and national team. In England, the talent is there – see the recent emergence of Lewis Chessum and Robert Carmichael –but too frequently it ends up being poured through a sieve.
For all the envious glances currently being cast towards Ireland, whose Under-20s sealed their own ‘green sweep’ this weekend, it was not too long ago that England had a world-leading youth programme. It is also worth remembering that Leinster’s playing pool is about the same size as Yorkshire’s.
The implicit assumption that the world’s largest playing pool and financial resources would keep England ahead of the opposition must come to an end.
Size counts for nothing unless you have the structure to harness it.