It’s time for another English inquest into the embarrassing failure of one of its sports teams at a World Cup.
This time, it’s the country’s rugby players in the firing line.
Stuart Lancaster acknowledged Sunday that his position as England coach was under threat after overseeing the national team’s worst-ever Rugby World Cup campaign.
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England lost 33-13 to Australia at Twickenham on Saturday, a week after losing to Wales at the same ground, to become the first host nation of a World Cup to fail to reach the quarterfinals. England still has a pool game left against Uruguay, which will be more like a wake than a sports match.
”All things are being considered,” said Lancaster, who appeared close to tears at a news conference, ”but I won’t be walking away for now.
”It’s not the time now to make a decision like that. My priority is to get the team ready for Uruguay.”
Lancaster’s employers have also ruled out any knee-jerk reaction.
”I would like to stress there will be no hasty reaction to England’s performance in this World Cup,” said Ian Ritchie, chief executive of England’s Rugby Football Union – the world’s richest national governing body.
”Lessons will be learnt in a calm and thorough manner in the fullness of time, post-tournament.”
Ritchie hired Lancaster on a full-time basis in 2012 and was behind the decision to hand the coach a new six-year deal last year.
England has seen its top men’s sports teams humiliated at the highest level over the past 16 months despite possessing some of the world’s best players and having governing bodies with vast levels of funding.
In June last year, the England football team was eliminated from the World Cup after losing its opening two group games. It was the country’s worst performance at that level since 1958. And in March, England was knocked out of the Cricket World Cup in the group stage after a campaign that included a loss to Bangladesh.
The rugby team’s plight was perhaps more embarrassing considering it was playing at home.
Lancaster took over after England’s ill-fated World Cup campaign in 2011, when the team’s disappointing displays on the field – it was eliminated by France in the quarterfinals – were overshadowed by a string of embarrassing off-field incidents.
A farmer’s son and a former school teacher, Lancaster proved a popular appointment as he succeeded in changing the culture around the England team and bringing a disgruntled public back onside.
However, he has failed to win a Six Nations title in four attempts, finishing second each time, and critics have accused him of being out of his depth at the World Cup.
Lancaster dropped George Ford, England’s starting flyhalf for the past year and orchestrator of the team’s emboldened attacking game plan, for the crucial matches against Wales and Australia, and named his 18th different flyhalf-centers combination against the Wallabies.
He left regular center Luther Burrell out of the World Cup squad in favor of Sam Burgess, a rugby league convert with just 10 months of experience of union.
And the failure to call up openside flanker Steffon Armitage – because of the RFU’s policy of not picking overseas-based players – now looks a grave oversight with Armitage one of the star performers for three-time European champion Toulon in recent years.
”We simply haven’t been good enough,” Clive Woodward, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach, told The Daily Mail newspaper. ”No expense has been spared in England’s preparation and they were at home in both matches. Everything was in England’s favour and they should have cashed in.”
However, Jonny Wilkinson, who was part of Woodward’s ”tour of hell” squad that lost 76-0 in Australia in 1998 but who recovered to kick the winning dropped goal in the 2003 World Cup final, preferred to focus on the future.
”Painful and unfulfilling but this very difficult experience will be the defining moment 4 a very successful England team later on (hash)1inAllin,” Wilkinson posted on Twitter soon after the loss.
RFU chairman Bill Beaumont on Sunday described Lancaster as a ”thoroughly decent guy and he’s brought a heck of a lot to English rugby.”
”At times like this, you put your arm around him and get on with it,” Beaumont said. ”Stuart has a contract and all these discussions are premature.”
Ritchie said his focus was on ensuring the World Cup continues to be an operational success, albeit now without the host team playing any further meaningful part.
”This is set to be the biggest world tournament to date,” he said. ”Over a million people have so far seen games live, and I have no doubt that our investment of time and resources in creating a lasting legacy will see a step change in rugby enjoyment and participation across the country.”