Is the optimism in English rugby justified?

Garth Hamilton Roar Guru

By Garth Hamilton, Garth Hamilton is a Roar Guru

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    England celebrate their win over Australia in their 2nd Rugby Union test match at ANZ Stadium, Sydney, June 19, 2010. (AAP Image/Dean Lewins

    In my Rugbytopia every city would have a Lang Park or Millennium Stadium. A hybrid of the two would be perfect; the throats of 60 odd thousand Welshmen singing to the shrine of King Wally Lewis as it triumphs over the unmarked graves of Brisbane’s pre-war dead.

    When the roof is closed at Cardiff the humidity driven from the brows of a well lubricated crowd and the smoke from the pre-game fireworks creates a cloudlike haze through which light beams down like rods of redemption on a lust-touched priest.

    You are in the cathedral of the Welsh Jesus who wore a number ten on his back.

    On match days, all of Wales seems to descend on Cardiff, ticket holding or not, and so the pubs surrounding the stadium stay well filled even during the game.

    Likewise on Brisbane’s Caxton street the pubs do a tidy trade either side of a game though probably never better than before that wonderful 2003 world cup game between England and Wales when the street was neatly divided into two white and red pub choirs.

    You can’t beat the home nations for beer in hand, song in throat patriotism.

    If only the Welsh hated Queenslanders, like they do the English, and the Queenslanders hated the Welsh, like they do Newly Southern namesakes.

    What a home and away series that would be.

    In both stadiums the game is played on your lap, so close and intimate with the action, yet in both stadiums there is a tremendous feeling of being part of something more than just a crowd. The viewing experience between spectators is easily shared, adding so much more to the enjoyment of the game.

    The Twickenham experience is a wonderful occasion, too.

    Playing three-coin spoof with strangers on a crowded outbound from Paddington, buying a pocketful of boerewors from a front garden braai on the way to the ground and then lingering after full time in the rib cage of the concrete cauldron singing along to karaoke Delilah.

    But the problem with Twickenham is in the long commute there and the even longer wait for a train home afterwards. For the international season this isn’t so bad if you are well armed with a skinfull of your favourite but the lack of a rugby ground in the heart of London does hurt the domestic game.

    Harlequins play at the Stoop, a short saunter away from Twickers. London Irish who are famously neither located in London nor populated by Irish are a good thirty quid trip train ride away in Reading. Wasps are also out in the western badlands, further from the capital’s attractions than even the most skint of working holiday antipodean flat-sharers care to end their Kontiki tours.

    Saracens have thus managed something of a coup by returning to North London and taking up residence a mere half hour tube ride out of Kings Cross in Barnet Copthall Stadium.

    I wonder what that will be renamed to?

    Whilst falling well short of delivering London its Lang Park/Millennium Stadium hybrid it does at least go some way to bringing rugby inside London. Perhaps the move south is simply symbolic of the club’s slow decent into South African hands.

    More likely it is symbolic of English rugby’s growth and improvement both on and off the field. The RFU worked hard to establish itself financially and the Premiership and European competitions are ever improving and ever more popular.

    Are there good times ahead for English rugby?

    The new CEO of the RFU, John Steele, has announced a change in direction for the governing body. Out is the money-making focus of his predecessor, Francis Baron, and in is a desire to see their hard earned prosperity and weight of playing numbers turned into results.

    English rugby fans often remind me of Nick Cave albums: things turn from most wonderful to most terrible and back again every couple of minutes. However, there does seem to be a sustained optimism in English rugby at the moment.

    Is it well founded?

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • Roar Guru

      November 11th 2010 @ 5:44am
      Hoy said | November 11th 2010 @ 5:44am | ! Report

      Oddly enough I think their national team is on the rise. This is surprising to me, as Johnson has done nothing the whole time he has been there except fluff around and select rather poorly in my eyes… until this year. They might be onto something for next year. Maybe.

      • November 11th 2010 @ 6:03am
        Ben S said | November 11th 2010 @ 6:03am | ! Report

        ‘Johnson has done nothing the whole time he has been there except fluff around and select rather poorly in my eyes’

        I think that’s more the cliched view from the outside. When Johnson took over England weren’t in a great place, and immediately he was shorn of a huge amount of experience due to retirements, and then players like Moody and Wilkinson due to injury. So… he selected an incredibly young and inexperienced side (of which 8 players went on to gain Lions Test caps), including Hartley, Kennedy, Croft, Rees, Care, Flood, Cipriani, Monye, Flutey and Armitage. In contrast to his image as a player he told the side to play loose and fast rugby and what happened? They had a horrific Autumn series and England were thrashed by NZ and SA.

        In the following 6N Johnson altered the side and England played some excellent counter attacking rugby, scoring the most amount of tries and finishing in their 2nd highest position since 2003. In the subsequent Lions summer period England thrashed Argentina in England and lost by two points away, drawing a series 1-1, which isn’t bad going. So far so good… an improvement.

        Then comes the Autumn internationals: England have up to 25 players injured and the side selected was a damage limitation team. The brand of rugby was unimaginative dross, but at no point was England outclassed, and at no point did the side look remotely like playing good rugby, however what more could be expected?

        In the 2010 6N England were very poor. In contrast to the one-dimensional rugby of the Autumn the side tried to play too much wide rugby, and suffered as a result. The side selected lacked balance and Johnson rushed back Flutey and Delon Armitage back from injury too soon. In the final game in Paris a few changes were made and the side looked far better for it. However, at this point it was still an incredibly inexperienced side.

        England then travelled to Australia. They played poorly in the 1st Test, much better in the 2nd Test and won away with a side that was younger and more inexperienced than the opposition. The trend of positive play continued against NZ.

        It has to be remembered that Johnson ha had a huge amount of misfortune with injuries. He has made mistakes, but he has also rebuilt what is basically an entirely new squad. If you just peruse the team – the options at 3 are Cole and Wilson, at 4, Lawes, Attwood and Shaw, at 6 Croft and Haskell, at 9 Care and Youngs, at 12 Flutey and Hape, and 15 Foden and Armitage. Critics say that he was too slow to start Lawes and Youngs, for example, which ignores the fact that neither had yet finished their first full season of rugby when they were capped, and Lawes was not even a starter at his club. Likewise, critics panned his decision to start Deacon and Borthwick when both were the best performing English locks in the Premiership at that time. He’s had a tough job to do and has done a mixed job, but IMO the positives outweigh the negatives and it seems that a lot of people want to criticise for the sake of it.

    • November 11th 2010 @ 7:10am
      Viscount Crouchback said | November 11th 2010 @ 7:10am | ! Report

      “Saracens have thus managed something of a coup by returning to North London and taking up residence a mere half hour tube ride out of Kings Cross in Barnet Copthall Stadium. I wonder what that will be renamed to?”

      Mecca, perhaps?

      Regarding the optimism, I think it’s mostly justified because England are producing some fine young players again, as a nation of 50m people and vast resources jolly well ought to. The RFU now takes underage rugby extremely seriously, so there shouldn’t be any more “lost generations” – as Rob Andrew calls the English players aged 26-9 – any time soon.

      But I think the jury is still out on whether or not Johnson has the tactical nous to get the best out of these promising young players.

      • November 11th 2010 @ 8:20am
        Ben S said | November 11th 2010 @ 8:20am | ! Report

        You know, the tactical side is delivered by Smith, VC, or at least that’s what I’ve heard?! Johnson is more of the Dean Richards but with greater input, and the players seem to really respond to him from what I’ve read. He is a common sense kind of guy, and he knows his rugby. I think he’s the ideal character to work with younger players in the way that Woodward wasn’t. I’m more worried about Rowntree and the fact that Alred isn’t involved anymore.

        • Roar Guru

          November 11th 2010 @ 10:12am
          Rugby Fan said | November 11th 2010 @ 10:12am | ! Report

          Johnson has brought Alred back.

          • November 11th 2010 @ 9:55pm
            Ben S said | November 11th 2010 @ 9:55pm | ! Report

            Really? When RF?

            • Roar Guru

              November 11th 2010 @ 10:21pm
              Rugby Fan said | November 11th 2010 @ 10:21pm | ! Report

              MJ told a press gathering last week that Alred had joined England training sessions. It’s still unclear whether he’s formally replacing Jon Callard, or is on a consulting contract, but he’s back in some capacity and not just sneaking around at Wilkinson’s invitation.

              • November 11th 2010 @ 10:26pm
                Ben S said | November 11th 2010 @ 10:26pm | ! Report

                That’s good news. Since Alred left England’s kicking has been tres poor.

    • November 11th 2010 @ 7:50am
      chris said | November 11th 2010 @ 7:50am | ! Report

      No Devon has a team i would love to see Premiership Rugby in Cornwall.

    • November 11th 2010 @ 8:10am
      saliosi said | November 11th 2010 @ 8:10am | ! Report

      England have alot of great young players who we will see at the next world cup. I doubt whether Shontayne Hape will go to the world cup Flutey and Turner – Hall wil be the no 12’s, also mark cueto has to go and ugo monye should come back in which will give them more pace. What are the chances of Cipriani going to the world cup.

    • November 11th 2010 @ 10:30am
      kingplaymaker said | November 11th 2010 @ 10:30am | ! Report

      Garth you are absolutely right it is essential to have more teams in a city with a population of 14 million, the richest in europe, and in rugby union as opposed to league territory.

      Why the clubs don’t do something about it who knows. They would also have no competition at all.

      • November 11th 2010 @ 9:53pm
        jannerboyuk said | November 11th 2010 @ 9:53pm | ! Report

        London is overwhelming football territory. Arsenal alone get more people for every home game then all the ‘london’ rugby teams get in a normal round of the guiness premiership.

        • November 13th 2010 @ 10:04pm
          djfrobinson said | November 13th 2010 @ 10:04pm | ! Report

          Rugby has no desire to take on the EPL. It only wants to build a brand and make English Rugby the best it can.

    • November 11th 2010 @ 10:37am
      Worlds Biggest said | November 11th 2010 @ 10:37am | ! Report

      All of Wales didn’t descend upon Millenium Stadium last Saturday with 20,000 empty seats. Obviously hard $ times and subsequent ticket prices. Same at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. I’m sure if England win on Saturday there will be plenty of hyperbole. They get lauded when they win a big game and crucified if they lose. They have a pretty good team.

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