Groundhog Day – England’s Dire Issue with Blooding New Talent
On June 6th, 1998, a skinny blonde 19-year-old from the relative rugby wasteland of Newcastle made his first international start for England in a summer tour of the Southern Hemisphere. Having made his international debut a few weeks earlier, replacing Mike Catt on the wing and becoming the second youngest England international ever at the time, he lined up at fly-half to play an in-form Australia outfit.
On a torrid day for English rugby, they were embarrassed in Brisbane with Australia racking up 76 unanswered points and keeping the helpless English scoreless, it was a score more familiar at a World Cup with a tier one side meeting a lesser tier two minnow. Not only that, the 19-year-old was kicked around the park, missing two routine penalty kick attempts and having a kick charged down for an easy Australian try, his international career seemingly in tatters before his 20th birthday.
That boy, as you probably know, grew up to be Jonny Wilkinson, regarded by some as the best English rugby of all time and the man of the match in the victorious 2003 World Cup Final, England’s only triumph in that game to date.
Luckily, Jonny was never dropped after that game, or England may have never won that World Cup, however, you can’t help but feel if this had happened today, in the age of clickbait, hyper-partisanship and former players/coaches itching for column fees, that poor Jonny may have never made it back.
Would he have been crucified by media and fans alike and tossed onto an overflowing pile of prematurely labelled ‘flops’ and ‘rejects’ and ‘not ready for test rugby’?
If England played in a World Cup Final tomorrow, with everyone fit and available, it would effectively be the same team that lost the 2019 World Cup Final four years ago. Genge, George, Sinckler seems to still be the first-choice front row, Billy is back at number eight, Ford and Farrell back as the playmakers and Youngs looks like he will start at 9 with Tuilagi still in the centres. The only talent that has solidified itself in the starting side in the past four years is Steward and, to a lesser extent, Chessum, Willis and Lawrence.
In that same period France have indoctrinated essentially a whole new squad of 33 with the likes of Dupont and Ntamack given the 2019 World Cup to mature and excelled ever since. Meanwhile, South Africa have added Nche, Wiese, Hendrikse, Libbok, Willemse, Arendse, Moodie and New Zealand Taukei’aho, De Groot, Newell, Williams, Papali’i, Telea, Clarke, Jordan and Fainga’anuku.
Even Wales, a rugby nation in reverse have seen enormous successes in promoting youth, encapsulated by the likes of Dewi Lake, Daffyd Jenkins, Christ Tshuinza, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Rio Dyer, Mason Grady and Louis Rees-Zammit.
In fact England’s team in their second warmup v Wales, assumedly the full strength team (before Owen and Billy’s bans) had the most collective caps of any England team of all time with 1067 from 23 players. Beating the previous record of 1021 from (you guessed it) the 2019 RWC final v South Africa. If England go far in this year’s World Cup, this record could become bigger by hundreds of caps.
According to stats by Russ Petty when the squad was named, Youngs and Care have started for England with either Ford or Farrell (all from previous World Cup cycles) 85 times. While all those same players have started with either JVP or Marcus Smith (debuted in this World Cup cycle) just 17 times.
The frustrating thing about the selection policy during this World Cup cycle is that Steve Borthwick has wasted time on certain players. Jamie Blamire and Tom Dunn were blooded and appeared the sensible understudies to the vastly more experienced Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie only for both Blamire and Dunn to be ousted for Jack Walker and Theo Dan, relative debutants. As established by Russ Petty, the hookers in Borthwick’s squad (when selected) had played a collective 3750 minutes, Walker just 28 of those and Dan 26.
While the previously ever-present Henry Slade may not have been in the best form this past season, explaining his shock non-selection, however, having a replacement with more than eight international starts in the past four years would more readily justify dropping your starter.
So, what is England’s issue, are the coaches scared to take risks and too eager to fall back on reliability and experience rather than being brave and taking risks for greater results? Absolutely yes. But that is not the issue, the issue is much deeper than that.
As alluded to in the Wilkinson analogy, the tribal atmosphere among the media and fans around England selection has fallen brazenly off the scale to the point of comically reactionary brandishing and intensely vitriolic abuse.
In the 2018/19 season, ending a couple of months before Ford and Farrell jetted off to Japan, Marcus Smith played 1784 minutes for Harlequins, scoring 248 points which included 4 tries. A player with bags of potential on the brink of superstardom who has since grown into and owned his role as a leader of Harlequins in the recent seasons, including a stunning 2020/21 season when he steered Quins to a Premiership title. So why is he not a permanent fixture of the current England team?
While coaches are not subject to making decisions based on popular opinion and players at the highest level are trained to block out abuse, the abuse coming from armchairs and seats in the studio is beginning to actively hinder progression.
After starting in wins against Australia and South Africa in 2021 public opinion turned on Smith during an unsuccessful 2022 Six Nations campaign.
Unlike Wilkinson and many others before him, the public were not prepared to give Smith any more chances and he was forever brandished ‘not good enough for test rugby’ despite numerous magnificent performances on the international stage since.
It’s not just Smith who has been a victim of reactionary and dumbfounded opinion. Following the loss to Fiji, Saracens star Ben Earl, who rips up trees in the Premiership and in Europe every week, earned himself numerous ‘not an international eight’ comments under England Rugby posts following being hounded for *checks notes* celebrating a turnover.
Other victims include Sam Simmonds, Jack Van Poortvliet, Guy Porter, Ollie Lawrence (the first time) and Ollie Hassell-Collins, all brandished not good enough after, in some cases, singular caps.
Ironically, one of the biggest culprits for this sort of reactionary “why isn’t X being picked he is better than Y” behaviour is the coach who oversaw the 76-0 defeat in 1998 and picked said 19-year-old Wilkinson, although, admittedly, he backed him until the end.
The problem forms that this attitude is not conducive to coaches backing their decisions. Like a million tiny civilians camped outside the office of a CEO shouting that he shouldn’t have promoted X because Y is better.
What if Galthie had dropped Dupont in 2019? What if Woodward had dropped Wilkinson in 1998?
Obviously the coaches should have a strong backbone and trust in themselves but if the outside noise is not drowned out soon, England might just hit the 2000 caps in the matchday squad at the 2027 World Cup, with a 34-year-old George Ford and a 35-year-old Owen Farrell once again in tandem.