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The Roar


From misery to mastery: How harnessing a golden generation and looking beyond the right now can bring RWC glory

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Roar Rookie
11th May, 2023
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We all know about the quadrennial cycle from World Cup to World Cup in Test rugby. As soon as one World Cup ends, teams prioritise building for the next one as older players retire or are jettisoned. Usually everyone is doing it so nobody is particularly disadvantaged.

Even more important than that though are longer, generational cycles, maybe covering 12 years. Getting these right brings the really big rewards.

As a rugby community – us punters and the so called “experts” in the media – we don’t pay nearly enough attention to these generational cycles. We just think in the short term and want our team to win lots of games and lots of trophies right now. It simply doesn’t always work like that – not even for the All Blacks.

We can’t expect stellar results just yet from Eddie’s Aussies either – we’ll discuss the reasons why we need to cut him some slack later in a series of articles looking at golden generations, and how they developed.

One objective of this series is to get us all thinking in terms of generational cycles, not just the here and now. Where is our team and its rivals in their cycles? What should our coach be trying to achieve this year and in this Rugby World Cup? What does success this World Cup mini cycle look like?


Obviously, the potential of each country’s generational cycle will be at different levels. New Zealand will expect to win the World Cup at the peak of theirs; Argentina might hope to make a semi final.


But it can be possible for administrators to take an even longer term strategic decision. A decision to try to improve a country’s development system and shift that potential to a whole new level for a much longer time. Ireland seem to have done that this century. Australia did it when empowering Dick Marks nearly half a century ago. As the series progresses we will discuss whether Rugby Australia needs to make a similar choice and the chances of that happening.

We will also look at how strategic decisions can have the opposite effect. John O’Neill, I’m looking at you.


This series won’t be some sort of seminal thesis with new ideas that will blow away even our forum’s intellectuals. It’s more of a chance to tell some stories, seeing how some of the golden generations of the recent past developed as individuals and a team, fulfilling their promise then slipping back down the curve. Also, on that deeper level, some longer-term stories of nations becoming great or fundamentally declining. And what is it about some nations that just seems to make them inherently extremely good at rugby?

Hopefully these stories will help us to answer some burning questions. What makes a rugby nation great? How did Australia go from average to great to average again? What needs to happen to Make Australia Great Again?

It’ll also be a chance for some great contributions and discussions below the line. Gaps will be left for Roarers to fill in. Let’s make this a community project.

Ok, that’s the introduction over. Let’s get stuck in.



It’s a visionary coach’s dream. An especially promising group of players coming through within a few years of each other. It’s a chance to think long term and create something special, maybe not in the next World Cup but the one after or even the one after that.

Think about this statement for a moment:

“If your current group of players isn’t that flash you’re not that likely to get to the very top with a team based on them. You’re much more likely in the long run to get there with a team based on the golden generation.”

That’s a big part of the logic that this series is based on. It’s not a hard and fast rule and circumstances are often more nuanced, but generally it will maximise the possibility of real success.

Of course a truly golden generation might not be available, but silver is better than bronze.


Therefore the coach’s priority should be clear. Maximise the potential of the golden generation. Suddenly short term results are not the most important thing (although try telling the press and fans that – it could cost you your job!)

You need to prioritise the development of those youngsters. Not necessarily by throwing them all in at the deep end, that could ruin them. You need to bring them in when they are ready, with more experienced players around them, and even then maybe gradually. For example by playing Dan Carter at second five where he can learn from an experienced master like Andrew Mehrtens or Carlos Spencer.

This is the start of a generational cycle. Remember the bell shaped normal distribution curve from high school maths? At the moment you’re on the bottom left of the graph but you don’t mind because you’ve got good reason to believe that eventually you’ll start moving up that curve right to the top of the graph, as the golden generation mature. If you’re a major country that hopefully means winning the Rugby World Cup. This glorious prize is the ultimate goal that you are aiming for.

Teams don’t often win the first World Cup of a cycle – experience matters at the big dance. The most important thing is to give the best players of the golden generation experience, with some old hands there to teach them the ropes of course.


After that first World Cup we begin the second four year mini-cycle for the golden generation. As with any World Cup cycle teams will say goodbye to some of the players unlikely to be around in four years and start to bring in a few more youngsters.

Now though the golden generation are starting to move into their prime. The generational cycle is approaching its peak. This is the big chance to do something special. At this stage of the cycle, results really do matter – Only the big prize will do if the coach is to be judged a real success.



So what do you do when you reach the summit? Ideally you want to stay there, but it’s not easy to have a prolonged era at the top. Just look at the list of Rugby World Cup winners – there is only one example of a team winning it twice in a row.

To extend the peak you need two things – another good generation of players and a coach who is able to fully integrate them into the squad. For a good example of this we will look at Richie McCaw’s All Black team – but that’s our next article.


Every team goes down the curve eventually. The golden generation ages and the replacements either aren’t as good or aren’t given a proper chance, maybe with the older players being kept on too long or retiring en masse. Hopefully a new generation will arise soon, one that will be properly nurtured and challenge for the big prize. But there are no guarantees.


I was going to use South Africa as my illustrative example. After all, they’ve won the Rugby World Cup at neat 12 year intervals, a succession of golden generations reaching the summit. France was another candidate, also making the Rugby World Cup final every 12 years (1987, 1999, 2011 and, if form persists, 2023.) But in the end I decided to go with another of the big five teams who have contested the Rugby World Cup final, England.


England are a team that’s had definite generational peaks. The 1991 team led by Will Carling, Jeremy Guscott, Wade Dooley and Brian Moore, goaded by David Campese into blowing a World Cup final by inexpertly running the ball away from their dominant forwards. Then of course, the greatest of them all, the 2003 Rugby World Cup winners led by Sir Clive Woodward, who were also able to make the final in 2007. And can we ever forget, 12 years later, Eddie Jones led them to yet another final. But that’s worth an article of its own, so let’s take a closer look at Sir Clive.

Jonny Wilkinson Mike Catt

Jonny Wilkinson left, and Mike Catt of England celebrate in the dressing rooms with the William Webb Ellis trophy after England’s win in the Rugby World Cup against Australia, in 2003. (Photo by Dave Rogers – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)


Woodward took his charges inexorably up the bell curve from the from the infamous (if you’re English) 76-0 Brisbane nightmare in 1998. A devastating experience for youngsters like Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery.
More misery was to follow the following April, with Scott Gibbs smashing through and dancing around five Englishmen at the end of the final match to deny England the Championship and Grand Slam 32-31. Wembley’s Twin Towers no more stony faced than Wales coach Graham Henry.

The 1999 Rugby World Cup saw only a slight improvement, 22 Englishman laid low by a dozen Beers in Saint Denis. That’s Jannie De Beer’s two conversions, five penalties and no less than five field goals bisecting the Stade de France posts. It almost seemed unfair.

Nevertheless, they were moving up that curve. Six Nations Championships in 2000 and 2001. Multiple wins against Australia and South Africa at what was now Fortress Twickenham those same years. And finally the 2003 pinnacle – away wins in Wellington and Melbourne followed by the raising of Old Bill himself.



By then England was an aging team known as Dad’s Army. With the younger generation nowhere near the same standard it should come as no surprise that it was time for the curve to drop. Apart from a player mutiny inspired surprise Word Cup final appearance in 2007, eight barren years were to follow. With the nadir being the drunken “Mike Tindall’s stag do” RWC 2011 campaign under head coach Martin Johnson.

Manu Tuilagi diving into Auckland harbour off the Waiheke Island ferry. Lewd comments to a hotel chambermaid. So called “dwarf tossing.” And a late night liaison between Tindall (the fiancé of the Queen’s granddaughter Zara Phillips) and his ex girlfriend.

England of course climbed out of these depths after Stuart Lancaster nurtured their next golden generation. We’ll talk about that in a future article.


So what do you think so far? How important are golden generations? Should we, coaches and the media think more about where we are in the generational cycle when setting our expectations? What would you like to discuss in this series? And does Eddie have one available to him – if so which one?

And what are your memories of England’s most golden generation? Did you admire them or love to hate them? Were they boring or beautiful?

Over to you.