Apologies for the England-centric tone of my recent posts. Unlike ITV I do acknowledge that there are a few other nations taking part at this Rugby World Cup but right now I feel like I've a fair amount of England-related stuff to get of my chest.
I've had a couple of days to reflect on the rest of the debacle against South Africa but it doesn't get any easier. I suppose Ireland nearly losing to Georgia (how funny would that have been?) puts things a little in perspective and, given that I had no expectation at all of England actually beating the Boks, I really shouldn't be so down about the whole performance.
However, what gets me is that England really do appear to be getting worse under Brian Ashton, the appointment of whom I supported. I figured that, after the paucity of the Andy Robinson regime, Ashton would instill the England set-up with a fresh mindset and was even willing to tolerate the stuffing we received at the hands of Ireland at Croke Park in March, accepting Ashton's reasoning that England had received insufficient preparation time. After a new-look team team then delivered a vibrant performance at Twickenham against France with Messrs Flood and Geraghty to the fore, I was convinced that England had turned a corner, and I'm sure that I recall Ashton commenting at the time that there would be no going back to the risk-free rubbish we had previously witnessed .
What, then, has happened? The England squad have been together since early July and yet the lack of cohesion, both in attack and defence, has been appalling at this tournament to date. What on earth have they been doing in training? Ashton's squad and team selections have been muddled and overtly conservative and our gameplan (such as it is) is predictable, uninspired and ineffective, as is our execution.
So who is to blame? The RFU spin will inevitably point to the clubs for putting their interests ahead of the national team but that's a fatuous argument - clubs are perfectly entitled to protect the massive investment they've made in the professional game and , in any case, despite popular belief they have produced plenty of decent quality English-qualified players for England to choose from.
The problem, as I see it, is that when players join the England squad they are joining a inferior set-up when compared to their clubs. Joining up with England should mean a step-up in the quality of facilities, coaching and organisation (as it was under Clive Woodward), but I get the impression that by and large players receive far better treatment at their respective clubs. It's certainly the case that in recent times club form appears to evaporate as soon as players pull on the white shirt and in some cases (Anthony Allen, Mark Van Gisbergen and Matthew Tait for example) players appear to have returned to their clubs with their form and confidence in tatters.
Ashton must take some responsibility for this and for the lack of cohesion amongst the World Cup squad, but I suspect the problem lies deeper. From my perspective the blame lies squarely at the door of the RFU, who have completely mismanaged the national team since the 2003 Sydney triumph. Not only did they fail to grasp the nettle and invest in the infrastructure to ensure that the team improved, they then reined in Woodward's plans before forcing him out, took the easy (but wrong) option of appointing Andy Robinson and, instead of supporting Robinson when he asked for help on the management side, let him bumble along before sacking his entire coaching staff post 2006 Six Nations and foisting a new coaching team on him later that year. Having belatedly appointed Rob Andrew to oversee things they then announced a return to the dark ages where selection was to take place by committee, before eventually sacking Robinson and appointing Ashton, who has since had to work with a coaching staff he didn't appoint or approve.
Love him or loathe him, Clive Woodward provided the blueprint for English rugby to be successful and it is to this blueprint that we need to return. Whoever is Head Coach needs to be given a decent budget, the freedom to create the right environment for elite players to come into and autonomy when it comes to selection. I don't know whether that coach should be Brian Ashton - on this World Cup's evidence so far it would appear not - but until he's given the power and the resource to create his England team I guess we'll never know.