I won’t pretend that I’m an expert on the game, but like all armchair fans I have my opinions. I played the game when I was younger, never aspiring above local club level, but it gave me a passion for the game if not expert knowledge. I'm a season ticket holder at Northampton Saints so I watch a lot of top flight rugby and some of what I see is bound to rub off.
When playing any sport there are four essentials for success: the talent of the individuals, their physical fitness, their psychological state (which might be paraphrased as commitment or self-belief), and the quality of their coaching. Take away any one of those elements and both the individual and the team will suffer.
With regard to talent I don’t think we can argue that in these islands we produce some very talented rugby players. What can be argued, however, is that we don’t nurture that talent well enough.
In the Fijian squad there were six players from English clubs, one from Wales and sixteen from French clubs. Tonga featured ten players from English clubs, one from Scotland and ten from France. Even the USA was getting in on the act with five players at English clubs, two in Wales and one in Scotland.
By contrast, how many overseas internationals play their club rugby in New Zealand, Australia or South Africa? Well, for New Zealand I counted six, for Australia six and South Africa eleven, but the majority of those are Namibians playing second tier rugby.
Do you see what I’m getting at here? Arguably the greatest rugby nations on the planet reserve their club places for their home grown talent. Unlike Britain and France they give up very few club places to overseas players. In Britain we give lots of overseas players excellent coaching and then they take that back to their national teams and use it against us.
When I talk about overseas players I’m not just talking about the South Sea Islanders here. Perhaps the most improved team at this World Cup, making it to the semi-finals for the first time, is Argentina. Six of their squad play in Britain and two in France, four of whom were in the team that beat Ireland.
Georgia probably wouldn’t have qualified for the tournament if it hadn’t been for French rugby. Nineteen out of their thirty man squad play in France and one in Britain. Look through all the second tier nations and you’ll find the team sheets littered with the names of English and French clubs, with a few more in Scotland and Wales. Not a side in the Aviva Premiership is excluded and some club names are more prominent than others.
Note, that isn’t all the overseas players that are playing in the Premiership, only those that got a run-out in the World Cup with their own country.
That is approximately 17% of the players in the Premiership. If you think that’s bad spare a thought for the French. The same calculation for the Top !4 works out at 19% of overseas players.
Now see this from the perspective of an up and coming young player who has been developed through the Academy system. He’s 18 years old, already getting regular A team games but he has his eye on the prize – a place in the First Team Squad and maybe, just maybe one day, a white England shirt. He sees an opening at his position due to a player departing or maybe being injured. Great, his big chance has come, only to see the door slammed in his face by an overseas player arriving.
Does he hang on in there and hope that his opportunity comes in time? Or does he ask to go to a second tier club where he may not get the same quality of coaching, but he will get regular first team games?
Maybe he won’t even get a say in the matter. There’s money to made in the transfer market by selling off promising youngsters. Maybe he’ll feel obliged to move whether he wants to or not.
But none of these options are good for England because that up and coming young player isn’t getting the development he needs through playing regular top flight rugby. Some do, of course, but not as many as should. Not all players mature at the same age. For every 20 year old hammering at the gates of Twickenham looking for a place in the England squad there are several that won’t be ready until they are 23 or 24, so what happens to them while they’re waiting?
This doesn’t just apply to English premiership clubs. Championship sides also featured in the international team sheets, notably Doncaster, Rotherham, Bedford and Cornish Pirates, so even in the English second tier development opportunities are being squandered. So how do we develop our own, home grown talent if we keep giving valuable club places to overseas players?
Well, first you have to look at the club game and the desire for success amongst the fans. Ask any Saints fan how they felt about Samu Manoa (USA) departing for Toulon and they’ll universally say they were gutted. Ask them how they feel about the arrival of J J Hanrahan (Ireland) or Pat Howard and Victor Matfield (South Africa) and I’m sure most of them will tell you they’re delighted. Ask them if they would like to see George North go home to Wales and they’ll probably offer you a fight in the car park for suggesting such heresy. Then ask them to name four Saints Academy players that could take those four places in the squad and you'll be lucky to get one or two names (I include my own inability in that).
Clubs need profits to survive and that comes from fans paying their money at the turnstiles, buying the replica kit, the programmes and the beer. The fans want success or they stop coming to matches and the price for that success is the importing of talent from outside the country. Sponsors also want success. No business wants its logo seen on the strip of a poorly performing club, so there are more money issues there. So the fans get what the fans want, the sponsors get what the sponsors want and clubs get to make a profit.
Meanwhile talented home grown players struggle to find a place in a Premiership team, so England rugby doesn’t get what it needs. The England fans, who are also club fans, moan when England doesn’t do well, but no one sees the disconnection between club and country.
In the meantime England are not selecting talented players because they play outside of England. This means that talented players such as Steffon Armitage (Toulon) and his brother Delon (Toulouse), are left on the side-lines of English Rugby.
Of course, if the number of overseas players playing in England were England Rugby's only problem they would probably consider themselves fortunate. That may not have helped Stuart Lancaster build a winning team, but it wasn't the only issue.
I can’t argue with the level of physical fitness that was on display. At the end of the matches you couldn’t say that the home nations looked any more tired than their opponents. If anyone should have been tired it was the southern hemisphere teams who had just finished a gruelling winter season. Very few tries were gifted by the home nations because players were unable to keep up with the game. Where players ran through defences it was because of errors, not because of fitness, by and large.
There may be a case to argue that some teams aren’t as psychologically fit as others. Self-belief is an important part of all sports and when you have thirty players in a squad it is hard to engender total self-belief from number one to number thirty. The Japanese had self-belief. That’s how they beat South Africa and Samoa. Did the English have that same level of belief in themselves?
England didn’t do as well as they should have in their warm up matches and that couldn’t have helped, not to mention their failure to win a Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 and they haven’t been champions since 2011.
Success breeds success through self-belief so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ireland and Wales, with two championships each in the last four years, should have a little bit more self-belief and be a little bit more successful. As for Scotland, well they upped their game, just like the Japanese.
Was there a game plan? If there was the opposition seemed to have read it and countered it quite effectively. From where I was watching the main plan seemed to be to batter a way through the centre. That's fine if you can achieve three essentials: one, keep possession; two, don't give away penalties and three, make territorial gains. England significantly failed to do any of those three. The apparent strategy having failed, did England change it? No.
Should all the coaches be sacked? Some of them? None of them?
My own feeling is that the backs under-performed more than the forwards so there is a case to answer there. If there is so much doubt about which is the best partnership in the half backs and centres then the backs coaches are the ones that have to answer for that.
Personally I think they got it wrong even before the tournament started by leaving out George Ford at Scrum Half and Luther Burrell at Centre, but I’m sure there are plenty of readers who will tell me I’m wrong (No need to e-mail me - I’ll take it as read). Sam Burgess at Centre? If that was the right decision why has his club, Bath, chosen to play him at Flanker? My feeling is that he was shoe horned into the side at the expense of better, more experienced players.
So another four years to wait for another crack at the World Cup, but only a few months to wait for the next Six Nations Championship. Can we hope for a better England performance? Not on the basis of the current evidence. My money is on Ireland with an each way bet on France.
On the upside there are still four more matches to be played between teams that have performed well throughout (if you accept South Africa's defeat by Japan as an aberration). The trouble is, who do I support? Probably New Zealand. Not only do they look like champions, but they won’t crow about it as much as Australia and South Africa. Sorry Argentina; you’ve done great but I don’t think you’ve yet got what it takes, but good luck in the third place play-off.
Meanwhile, what do we do about Saints, who were truly terrible against Warriors a week ago? Jim Mallinder has been suggested as a possible new Head Coach for England. Well, another performance from Saints like the last one and he can forget about that! The match against Newcastle Falcons this afternoon at Milton Keynes will be a real test. I wonder which of our overseas players will perform the best?
Next week: Bond is back - so how's he looking these days?