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End Twickenham Soap Opera: article in FT today

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End the Twickenham soap opera to revive England's fortunes by Derek Wyatt (Page 11 in FT)

 I have been going to see England play rugby for the past 30 years including five World Cups. I don’t recognise the game today to the game I once played. In Sydney on the morning of the England’s Rugby World Cup victory over Australia in 2003 I had to ask Stuart Barnes, the former England fly half and rugby pundit, to explain the new secret to the game. “The team that wins the lineouts wins the game,” he said.

England lost the World Cup final in Paris against South Africa four years ago not because Mark Cueto’s “try” was disallowed but because they were beaten in the lineouts. Even Jack, my 14-year-old son, said halfway through the second half: “Dad, why don’t they shorten the line or throw it over the top?” He’s bound to be chairman of selectors.

England lost their way at this year’s World Cup against Wales at Twickenham in August in one of the three preparatory matches. It was obvious Wales were a metre faster with the ball in their hands, had more attacking ideas and had an array of smart, defensive ploys. England won but lacked leadership on the field and, worse, were tactically bereft. It was as though their recent wins against Australia, home and away, were an illusion.

In 2002-03, England’s rugby team set new standards in fitness, support clothing including jerseys, diet, technology, training and mental toughness. Other teams and other sports joined a line to Twickenham to find the secret to success. Today, they have fallen so far behind. Now the queues start and end at Lord’s to watch England’s cricketing heroes. How are times changed.

Nevertheless, it still came as a real surprise to me that England failed to beat France last weekend. They had laboured wins against a feisty Argentine XV (13-9) and Scotland (16-12). Maybe the side was bored by having to play its pool matches and keener to move on to the knock-out phase, given that it had such a successful pedigree, with three finals and one semi-final from six World Cups. (Only Australia has a better record.)

The old signs were there, though: indifferent throwing in at the lineout, too many penalties in the front row (and not enough quality scrummaging), slow ball to the three-quarters, a backline in which Mike Tindall, Cueto and Matt Banahan should never have featured and some pig-headedness in selection once it became clear that Jonny Wilkinson’s form had deserted him. There’s not a finer professional player in the world so his demise was painful to watch. Being a perfectionist, Wilkinson will be upset about his performance and will be back, but maybe not in an England shirt again. 

But just look at how Scotland had surprised England again and again in the lineout. There were short lines with the ball going over the top; there were balls at the front – a rarity these days – and reduced lines as well. Scotland had seen England’s Achilles heel and very nearly came away with a victory. One floated pass by Toby Flood was enough for us to sneak a late win.

So the questions that England rugby fans were asking in the week between the Scotland game and the French quarter final was, what would we do differently? And the answer came, “nothing”. Well OK, England gave away six penalties instead of the usual dozen but they made 32 handling errors as against 17 by France. They were poor against a moderate French side. England lacked leadership, definition and had learnt very little from the four previous games in the pool stages; unsurprisingly they lost 19-12.

So what now? We do not need another inquiry (the Rugby Football Union has five ongoing but possibly more have been added since you started reading this piece). It is painfully obvious what was wrong. Martin Johnson should not have been appointed without oversight and without a communications director. He should step down as should Rob Andrew, his putative boss, who seems to have gone Awol during the World Cup. We need to clear the stables and start again. It will be painful but it is necessary.

The same goes for the RFU. I have struggled to find a single FTSE 100 company chairman who has threatened to issue a writ against its chief disciplinary officer. But this is what Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU executive, did to Judge Jeff Blackett, the RFU’s chief disciplinary officer, back in July. You couldn’t make it up. By the by, it just so happens that it was Thomas, who promoted Johnson and hired and fired John Steele, for the role of RFU chief executive.

It is now nine months since the chaotic restructuring plan was unanimously approved by the board but, unbelievably, the RFU now has no full-time chairman, no full-time chief executive, no performance director, no finance director and no full-time human resources manager. In reaching this position it is estimated that the board has wasted £2m-£3m of members’ money in redundancy payments and fees for consultants, lawyers and recruitment – enough to fund 50 to 75 community rugby coaches for a year. Such a record in so short a time is without parallel for a major company or national organisation in the UK.

Rugby players and supporters are sick of the soap opera being played out at Twickenham. It seems to me from the RFU president, down to the acting chairman and on to the executive board and its council members that they have simply forgotten why they are there and seem unable to comprehend what they have done to our precious game. English rugby has become a laughing stock in the City, in government and in the Olympic movement.

A former MP, the writer played rugby for Oxford University, the Barbarians and England 


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