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Tuesday October 11 2011

Sport is fascinating not only because of the fascinating games on offer, but because of all the politics.

The R(ugby) F(ootball) U(nion), i.e. the bunch of guys who run the English game, is in a state of great confusion just now.  From what I can tell, the essence of the problem is that nobody has sufficient authority to gather everyone else around in a big pow-wow, to sort everything out.  Instead, power struggle reigns, to establish who, if anyone, has, or might in the near future have, such authority.

While England’s players were preparing for their flights, the battle for control of the RFU was intensifying, with a growing number of clubs demanding major changes, and the Government demanding an explanation over what steps the governing body will take to restore faith in its handling of the sport.

The Government.  Please no, not the Government.  Don’t they have enough to fret about already?

Rob Andrew (a former England fly half), who is currently the Director of Something Or Other for the RFU, has said that he is going to conduct a review.  But he conducted an earlier review in 2007, and in any case, half of English rugby seems to be saying: Who the hell are you to conduct a review?  You’re one of the things that ought to be reviewed?  You are going to get together with Johnson to decide if Johnson should pack it in.  How about you packing it in, you pillock.  Or words to that effect.

I don’t mean to pick on poor old Rob Andrew.  Everyone else with any pretensions to authority in English rugby seems now to be in the same position, and enduring similar abuse.

It all rather reminds me of what Kumar Sangakarra said about Sri Lankan cricket, after they’d won the cricket world cup, and after all that TV money and “professionalism” squirted into their game, turning a bunch of amiable amateurs, both players and admin guys, into a shark tank of politico-financial frenzy.

I recently read a biography of Clive Woodward, and what came over very strongly was that whereas Woodward professionalised the running of the England team, the people running English rugby as a whole remained in a state of confusion.  Woodward hoped they’d sort themselves out after England had won the World Cup, but they just wanted to relax and enjoy it.  Woodward didn’t resign the England job immediately after winning the World Cup.  He resigned somewhat later than that, because he didn’t like the continuing muddled state of the RFU.  He thought the confusion might be temporary, and that maybe he’d provoked a cure for it.  When he realised it was endemic, he then gave up.

I agree with (regular commenter here) Antoine Clarke that Martin Johnson had insufficient experience as a coach to be the coach of England.  My understanding being: none, when he got the job.  In contrast, when Clive Woodward was appointed, he not only, like Johnson, had experience as a England player, but had already coached Henley, and then London Irish, both with considerable success.  And did he not also do some coaching for Leicester?  Plus, he had studied at Loughborough, which gave him an insight into all kinds of coaching philosophies and techniques.  He also had quite a bit of business experience under his belt, having started his own company, again with considerable success.  Basically, Woodward was ready for the job.  When he had a disappointing World Cup in 1999, it was rightly decided that he was on the right lines and deserved another go.  Johnson, on the other hand, having had a comparably disappointing World Cup in 2011, is not now believed capable of doing any better, and I am inclined to agree.

If I was Johnson, I’d jack in the England job, decide if I really wanted to be a rugby coach at all, and if I decided I did, go and coach the Twiddleborough Academicals for a few years, and get them promoted from Division 7 to Division 4 (or whatever they have down there), while making a living on the rugby public speaking circuit.  Then become coach of Reading or Coventry or some such place.  Then Harlequins or Leicester.  If that doesn’t appeal, get a normal job and have a normal life.  Plus the public speaking engagements, on the basis of him at least having captained a successful World Cup team.

Trouble is, Johnson has the same problem Woodward now has whenever he tries to do anything not totally boring, which is keeping himself out of the newspapers.

As for the larger problems of the RFU, of who should run the thing, and how, I have no idea, but am very interested.  So if you think you know about that and feel inclined to tell me what I should think about it, feel free.

I don’t know how much money Martin Johnson is paid, but it would be unreasonable to expect him to toss away, say £2 million or any sum of that magnitude, in order to “do the right thing” and resign. At the very least, he should let his financial advisor/agent sit down with the RFU and come to an agreement that does not seem too greedy or make him too generous.

One problem would seem to be that no one has the authority and respect of the RFU membership right now to make that happen. Letting the clubs organise something like an Estates General could solve a lot of problems, but not quickly or without a lot haggling and rows. It is an opportunity though, there seems to be virtual unanimity that there is a mess.

I also think that whereas I would definitely not have appointed Johnson in the first place, he has of course now got some experience. It would be daft to toss him out without considering if Johnson might do better next time. The question I would be asking would be: is Martin Johnson the best person to bring some discipline back to touring parties and is he the right person to develop England’s younger players (a few of whom are quite good)? A phone in organised by The Sun would be as likely to answer this well and more likely to produce an acceptable answer than Rob Andrew would.

To me the dismissal of Brian Ashton made no sense whatsoever, he “only won” 55% of games, but that included a group match against South Africa, two friendlies against France and two more against South Africa (who won the World Cup that year). Ashton NEVER lost a competitive match against France, something many other England managers have not achieved.

Andy Robinson didn’t work as a replacement for Clive Woodward, but he has now run the Scottish team for a couple of seasons. He would make sense and with quite a nice group of young England players coming through, it could be tempting.

The alternative is probably taboo: hire a foreigner. When does Warren Gatland’s contract at Wales run to? What about Pierre Berbizier? Or Nick Mallett’s contract with Italy?

What is absurd is that the best English defensive coaches are in charge of the French team and Wales. The scrum is the only area where the coaching seems adequate, though having a 50kg advantage and struggling against France was not great evidence of this. Anyone wanting to throw money around should headhunt Doug Ellis or Shaun Edwards for starters.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 11 October 2011

Today “England” beat Wales 9-8 on penalties.

“On a gagné pas perdu!”

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 15 October 2011

Yes.  That was the worst performance by a winning World Cup semi-finalist I’ve ever seen.

NZ to slaughter them in the final?  You really can’t see either NZ or Australia losing to that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 October 2011

Oh no. France will beat the ABs, it’s Australia I’m worried about. The ABs will watch and think “How can we lose AGAIN to that lot” and proceed to show us.

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 15 October 2011

Wales had plenty of chances to win, though.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 October 2011

I don’t see any possibility at all of France beating the All Blacks. The only people who can stop the abomination from occurring are the Wallabies, and they will have to play a lot better than they did last week if they are going to do this.

France remain third favourite with the bookmakers. A situation in which one semi-final is complete, and yet the winner of that semi-final (who only have to win one game) is still considered less likely to win the tournament than either of the other two teams (who have to win two) who are still to play is very rare, shall we say.

Still, France are in the final. If I was French, that would please me.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 15 October 2011

I don’t see any possibility at all of France beating the All Blacks.

I’ve heard that before.

“Ce n’est pas possible, m’écrivez-vous : cela n’est pas français.” (Napoleon)

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 15 October 2011

Certainly I will be cheering for France if the final is France v New Zealand. (I don’t know what it says that my wish for New Zealand to not win this tournament is much stronger than my desire for Australia to win it). And we will see. However, I think France have a realistic chance if their opponent is Australia. I really don’t see it against New Zealand.

I am amazed France have come this far. France are clearly the strongest rugby nation that have never won the World Cup, but this is one of their weaker sides.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 15 October 2011

Okay, so New Zealand much too good for Australia, in truth. Antoine, if France can beat that, I will be impressed.

Also, when did southern hemisphere rugby turn into 80 minutes of forwards bashing into one another and the winner being the team who can kick the most penalty and drop goals?

I think the answer may be “When New Zealand decided they would do whatever was necessary to win”, in truth.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 16 October 2011

What’s Maori for “butterflies in the stomach”?

Posted by Antoine Clarke on 16 October 2011
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