Beware the wounded beast says Andy Farrell ahead of Sunday’s visit of England. That assumes there is potency in the predator. Has Ireland’s coach not been watching? Comprehensive defeats to Scotland and France erased any sense of optimism that may have lingered from the scratchy wins against Italy and Wales.
Saturday’s evisceration against France at Twickenham, a record defeat at HQ, demonstrated how far the English have fallen. Mentally feeble and physically inadequate was the damning conclusion of former England coach Sir Clive Woodward, and this a man who found reasons to be positive even in the dying embers of Eddie Jones’ reign.
That Woodward now places responsibility for England’s fall at the door of Jones is rather rich but it does at least make relevant the keynote claim of Steve Borthwick’s predecessor in an interview with this newspaper, namely that the English way, the club system that produces international players, is no longer fit for purpose in the professional epoch.
The Jones interview in the quiet of August brought forth a quote that went around the rugby world. “You are going to have to blow the whole thing up at some stage, change it because you are not getting enough skilful players through,” he said. Critics jumped all over the link Jones made to the prominent role played by the public school system in the player pathway.
In doing so they missed the wider point made by Jones about the absence of rugby played in state schools and the lack of informal rugby on the playing fields of England as kids might dabble in New Zealand and South Africa. This he felt was a hugely contributory factor in the inability of the system to produce players of the requisite skill and intensity that Woodward identified as the missing ingredients on Saturday.
Though England is the richest union on earth it is saddled with a bloated domestic framework that cannot support itself. The Premiership does not have the financial power of the domestic structures in France, which generates far greater broadcast income. The desperate chase to compete has left Premiership clubs with an average annual loss of £4m, a problem which developed into a full blown crisis during the pandemic. Worcester and Wasps were the obvious victims, collapsing under the financial strain, but none in the pyramid is secure.
English rugby has been burned by the ambition to keep pace with France, a country that generates enough cash to allow the club system to invest in a genuine professional structure, paying players and support staff properly and spending heavily on facilities. This was the vision when English rugby went professional 25 years ago, but its ability to generate revenue has not matched its enthusiasm for chasing dreams.
There are no great riches in Ireland either but the world No 1 side is connected to a domestic structure that mirrors the New Zealand experience by coming under the control of the Irish union in terms of budgets and planning. The domestic league in Ireland comprising 52 clubs exists happily in tandem with the United Rugby Championship, which includes four elite Irish regions alongside regional teams from Scotland, Wales, Italy and now South Africa. That enhanced level of competition of the URC better simulates the intensity and pace of international rugby.
In France the well-organised and heavily funded structure is itself the heightened layer that guarantees the quality of player coming through. In England, despite the wealth of the RFU, a broken club system disconnected financially from the governing body is undermined by the twin evil of insolvency and a narrow pool of junior players. It is both underfunded and unwieldy, and, as Jones argued, structurally incapable of producing the right calibre of player to compete with the best.
Borthwick is thus hamstrung by the same fundamental issues that constrained Jones, with little prospect of changing outcomes until the game’s stakeholders, the RFU, led by chief executive Bill Sweeney, and the indebted club owners reach the same conclusion as Jones and accept the need for radical intervention.
Let the defeat to France and the manner of its delivery be the incendiary device that ushers in new thinking and leads to a restructuring of the English game under the overarching authority of the RFU. The regulation preventing leading players chasing big cheques abroad, in places like France and Japan, are already under review and would constitute a quick-ish fix by exposing England’s top players to a deeper competitive environment.
A restructuring of the Premiership under tighter financial regulation is an obvious necessity. And if there is insufficient interest in the domestic game to attract broadcasters why not revisit the idea of forming regional teams and reach out to the URC for their inclusion? Such a development, perhaps coalescing around the old orientation of London, the Midlands, the North and South West in the URC would expose English players to a broader range of rugby cultures and might spice the contest sufficiently to capture the imagination of broadcasters at home and abroad.
Though that would address the necessity to improve the competitive level of England’s professional elite in the short term, solving the complex systemic issues that constrain development pathways requires fundamental reforms. To ignore that imperative, as Jones warned, is to mine new ways of reaching rock bottom.