The World Cup wasn’t England Rugby’s finest moment, but it’s not the end of rugby as we know it. Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson calls for a spot of perspective
It would be hard for me to claim that I resemble Leicester Tigers Head Coach Richard Cockerill. He, the squat, immensely-powerful shaven-headed boss of one of England’s top rugby clubs. Me, the admittedly taller yet infinitely more out-of-shape rugby writer. And yet there’s one thing that we have in common just now. We’re both heartily fed up of the fallout from England’s World Cup campaign in New Zealand. After the Tigers’ posted a hugely impressive 19-14 away win at Gloucester in the Aviva Premiership Cockers was moved to announce that he was “sick and tired of reading about it”. Those who might be cheeky enough to claim that the former England hooker was never much one for reading might get a few laughs, but Cockers is surely right. We’ve seen so much blood-letting – and public blood-letting at that – that you might think any and all of rugby’s traditional values of loyalty, respect and a certain discretion had been washed away in the space of two unseemly months.
I don’t believe this. Nor does Cockers. And in a deliciously-ironic manner that wasn’t lost on me, Leicester’s victory at the weekend was constructed by Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, two members of the England squad who found themselves unwittingly embroiled in the finger-pointing and blame culture that we saw in England post-New Zealand.
The stories that were everywhere regarding the bad behaviour of the England squad (and just be clear here, Flood and Youngs were never personally accused of any impropriety) are well-known to all now. But the picture painted in no way corresponds to the England players that I know.
In my role as Editor of England Rugby magazine, the official publication of the RFU, I naturally come into contact with the senior players on a regular basis. In all the time that I’ve been around them I can honestly say I’ve never felt that the players were anything less than hard-working, professional and dedicated, both to the sport of rugby and to the England team and ethos. I have never seen anything other than guys who worked hard and worked well in the pursuit of excellence.
I’m not claiming that I know them all as individuals. Nor can I claim that I’m with them every waking hour and have watched them regularly, both at work and at play. But I think I’ve seen enough to know that whatever else, they took the work seriously. Plus anyone who knows Martin Johnson also knows that he’s a man who demands the highest standards both from himself and from everyone around him. I find it impossible to believe that England were nothing more than an undisciplined rabble and am convinced that much of what has been written is the result of a certain amount of bandwagon-jumping.
I’m not for a minute saying that England were saints during the World Cup, that nothing went wrong, that certain individuals didn’t cross the line at certain times. But I would definitely refute the fact that all was rotten in the state of the Red Rose. Lest we forget, two New Zealand players were seen in proper states of alcoholic disarray during the World Cup. Nobody seems desperate to pillory the All Blacks over that for the simple reason that they won their games.
Had England gone one game further and reached the semis, which was after all the stated minimum goal before the tournament started, would we be witnessing the same level of media fallout? To my mind that’s inconceivable. In the world of professional sport, and even the generally principled sport of professional rugby, let’s not kid ourselves – it’s the winning that counts. Had England done better on the field – and not even very much better – then there would have been little interest in the off-field tittle-tattle that seems to have assumed seismic levels of importance since. The biggest crime that England committed was to have failed on the field. But they’re certainly not the first international team to do that and they won’t be the last either.
This desire to apportion blame seems only to assume significance when the results aren’t there. Back in 1996 England’s footballers were lambasted for their exploits in the ‘dentist’s chair’ in Hong Kong before the European Championships started. Then they beat Holland 4-1 with a super display of attacking football and all was immediately forgotten and forgiven.
Nobody can claim that England’s World Cup was a rousing success. But the idea that the England set-up was nothing more than an ill-disciplined bunch of yobs on some sort of six week jolly is a truly gross distortion of the truth.
Regardless of the outcome of the reports and regardless of the damage inflicted by the leaking of private documents into the public domain, England will be back before you know it and all of this will be consigned to the realms of ancient history. Because hysteria is always nothing more than a temporary condition...
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