I know it’s something of a minority pastime but I’m gently, distractedly, coolly fixated on the England Manager Thing. And whilst I have – when prompted – plenty to say about S. Capello, I’m not talking footie.
Rugby; that magnificent drunk-with-honour but recently wreckless bundle; the one where real blokes dismember each other then hug. Though the World Cup may have peeled away some of our romantic certainties, it remains clear I hope that top level rugby reaches the places football, for example, dare not pretend to. Extreme physicality without too many grudges; utter selflessness and routine courage; obedience and generally even respect for the ref. These feel important in a world where international footballers routinely dive or fake contact and shockingly berate the call of authority. (I say this in full knowledge of the weakness of the inferred link between two massively different games and the obviousness of these dubious comparisons. And I grew up in a football household.)
So let’s not pretend things are perfect with rugby. Verbals have increased; behaviour is more prima donna-like; sensitivity/decency failure seems to have become an issue, most famously and recently within the England camp in particular. In this context, the reported £25,000 fine for Tindall is a sharpish riposte to creeping naughtiness and one which perhaps we should applaud – if only for the momentary relief it may provide for the RFU hierarchy, who must surely, finally, urgently be working their sweat-tingled socks off to gain control of a) the game b) the England side c) public perception of same.
Though I cannot condone the ‘antics’ of Messrs Tindall/Ashton/Tuilagi etc. – they provided an appropriately depressing ground for the drab watercolours that were English performances at the Rugby World Cup – the sense is of minor distractions snowballing. In terms of performance and image, players presumably let relatively loose let their team down. However – mighty big ‘if’ enter stage left – IF England had performed with flair and imagination and success, how many punters might be smiling at say, Tuilagi’s youthful exuberance? (I did anyway.) In reality crap ‘behaviour’ settled quite nicely against crap performances in the games’ psyche and its profile. I personally am more offended by the nature of the rugby England played than the alleged general malaise in conduct; although it’s close.
England Rugby is in a mess. Despite huge resources every which way and a deepish pool of talent we need look no further than the word embarrassing to describe performance levels – arguably not just at the World Cup. I have been and will remain critical of Martin Johnson – as long as I’m out of earshot. He was a totem, a titan, a tower and a coolly fearsome opponent as a player but as a manager he has, in the modern idiom, sucked. (Am I still out of earshot?) There has been a consistent chronic lack of direction and inspiration on the pitch. Aware, authoritative and yes inspirational managers would have addressed this, either with a hairdryer, or a quiet word, or some Churchillian rhetoric. Instead it’s rumbled on, this infectious lack, this fumble.
Contrast this with the recent Welsh resurgence. When it mattered, Gatland, Edwards and Howley had their posse fizzing happily and with just the right mixture of aggression and liberated zeal. Rarely has the full expression of collective talent seemed so uplifting. It felt like the game itself joined in with the dynamic swell as Warburton’s (should that be The Coaches?) Mob railed unquietly towards the People’s Final. ‘Til something intervened. We can be sure that a good deal of good management played a vital part in the Welsh enterprise – enterprise in every sense. Disappointingly the concomitant paucity and tightness of the English game has to be laid at Johnson’s door, along with Ford/Rowntree etc.
Only those privileged to have been close to the poop-spraying equipment may truly know which of the coaches deserve to remain, finger on fan. Excuse the further malodorous pun but I suspect a major clear-out may be in order. And yet we wait. We speculate. Those of us in Wales (I think) generally fear the announcement that Edwards has deserted, believing passionately that the GEH triumvirate had something special in the offing. (Shaun, I know you’re listening, STAY AND ENJOY THE FUN! They won’t understand you!! They won’t let you be you!!) Those in England presumably wonder what kind of combination will lie ahead.
I’ve wrestled with the Possibles. Without NOTW style surveillance, it’s difficult to know which of the following have been seriously or serially canvassed. Nick Mallett/Jim Mallender/Graham Henry/Shaun Edwards/Clive Woodward/A N Other/ Me? As already covered under A Poisoned Flagon, I’m going for a combination featuring Edwards and I know not who.
But what about the skipper? Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw has hurtled into Possibles-plus type profile, having been touted convincingly by the likes of Phil Vickery. A new management team, culling fearlessly would increase the scope and likelihood for all manner of changes, perhaps even including inviting young Mr Lawes to step forward. But is that as fanciful as imagining Ben Foden as skipper? In other words… it’s still messy. So I’d just like to know now please; just like to feel like something’s been sorted. Know what I mean?