England out of its own Rugby World Cup party
04 October 2015, 10:16
London — Let the post-mortems begin.
Every Rugby World Cup host had reached at least the quarterfinals until England failed on Saturday when it lost to Australia 33-13 at Twickenham.
A week after blowing the match against Wales 28-25 at Twickenham, England had no choice but to beat the Wallabies to stay in the playoffs hunt, but couldn't survive the toughest pool in tournament history. With a group game left to play and still four more weeks before the final, England is out of contention in the tournament.
England's last Pool A game against Uruguay in Manchester next weekend has turned into an encore, and for all intents and purposes the host has been kicked out of its own party, the biggest and potentially best Rugby World Cup.
Coach Stuart Lancaster accepted the consequences before the match if England didn't get out of its pool for the first time.
"Obviously, I have to think about (my future), it's not one for now," he said. "We still have another week to go but, as I said during the week, the responsibility and accountability rests with me.
"From my point of view, my priority is to get the team ready for Uruguay, and I am not in control of anything else."
Lancaster said his tenure would be defined by the results against Wales and Australia, and the results aren't good.
The England squad choked against Wales, which came from 10 points down twice in the second half. England captain Chris Robshaw opted against kicking a late penalty for a draw, and going for a corner lineout, which was demolished by the Welsh, who won at Twickenham for only the third time in 25 years.
Against Australia, England targeted the scrum as a weakness, but it wasn't, and became a Wallabies weapon. And while England closed within seven points in the second half, its discipline fell apart again, leaving Australia to enjoy its biggest ever win over England at Twickenham.
"This week we are going to have to answer some tough questions," Robshaw said. "Myself and the players feel like we have let the country down."
But decisions long before then ought to haunt Lancaster, Robshaw and their bosses.
England made it policy after the last World Cup to choose only home-based players, to stem an exodus of talent from the Premiership to richer French clubs. It worked, and England gave itself an out with an "exceptional circumstances" clause to invoke if it wanted to pick an overseas-based player. It should have been used on France-based Steffon Armitage, the best flanker in Europe for the last two years. His absence was felt in both defeats, as England lost the battle in the breakdowns badly.
Leaving out specialist center George Burrell for rugby league import Sam Burgess, whom his club preferred at No. 8, also backfired on England, when it panicked on the eve of the Wales game, and tore up a settled, rewarding and popular gameplan. Flyhalf George Ford was dumped, and Burgess introduced in the centers.
Following the Wales defeat, the lack of faith in Burgess became obvious against Australia, when winger Jonny May came off with an injured leg at halftime and was replaced by Ford, not Burgess.
But Lancaster is likely to lose the job only if he resigns. He won't be pushed. He's highly regarded by the English Rugby Football Union for reinvigorating the team after the debacle at the 2011 World Cup, and putting pride back into the white jersey. Last year, they gave him a six-year contract extension to 2020, including the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
He hasn't delivered results — England has finished second in the Six Nations in each of his four years in charge, and will complete its worst World Cup finish — but it was accepted this squad would be better equipped for a crack at the 2019 title, than this one. Even RFU rugby director Rob Andrew admitted that.
But the pressure of being the hosts caused Lancaster to lose his nerve in selection, and the Sweet Chariot has never swung so low.
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