Back in January I wrote about Lancaster’s leadership of the team and I had hoped that in the run-up into this tournament that these things had been put to bed. There has been a lot of coverage of the leadership or lack of by the players but I feel it runs deeper than that.
Leadership, culture and decision making are all very hard to define but something that gets talked a lot about around both sport teams and companies. Interestingly when I talked about this with Zane Hilton the coach from the Melbourne Rebels, he said they defined behaviours that would drive their culture. For me it’s how the players behave or act that counts.
Let’s deal with the last week in chronological order to point out areas that I think the England teams actions have let them down. The England match day squad was leaked a day to two before the official announcement. This is something that has been happening regularly for England and did so again today. Talking on Twitter with some people including a journalist this isn’t a planned leak and I can’t see why the camp would want to leak the squad. If you want to make a statement about being happy to let it be known who’s playing then announce it. Apparently once the players know it will get out but this is something that doesn’t happen for other squads. The players should realise that giving away this tactical information is bad for them and should understand their responsibility. I was told good luck with that suggestion but to me it is a sign of weak leadership by Lancaster that this information is consistently getting out.
During the start of the game England had the upper hand in the set piece but were losing the breakdown and giving away penalties. The England team rectified that and appeared to be in control of the situation even if they weren’t racking up more points. In the second half though some players started to lose their heads and the penalties came back. I didn’t see anyone taking Brown or other players to one side to calm them down. There were poor decisions being made that also led to a disjointed midfield defence.
For me the kick to the corner wasn’t a bad decision in it’s self. The execution afterwards was what went wrong, firstly there was the wrong lineout call to the front. England though did have another lineout but that was knocked on. It still wasn’t over though as there was a ruck that Wales were going to box kick from. This is where again the players showed bad decision making. There was a scrum advantage to Wales that was about to be kicked away but the England players chose to try and block it. In doing so the scrum was given and time ran out, they should have let the kick happen trusting in the winger/fullback to claim the ball. Would they have won? Probably not but there would have been a chance that they didn’t allow through poor actions. Yes it was in the last seconds so lots of pressure and a bad time to be thinking. This is why teams like the 2003 English team that won the Rugby World Cup spent so much time scenario planning. The All Blacks a couple of years ago had a better score differential when down to 14 men and refused to discuss if they trained for it. Of cause they did, they knew it was a valid match situation they needed to deal with. Had this England side run through the scenarios of getting possession of the ball with seconds left? Did they already know what to do? That’s the responsibility of the coaches and it didn’t look like it at the weekend.
In contrast the Welsh side had a bunch of injuries leading to players having to come onto the pitch and play out of position. They showed composure and correct decision making in there unfamiliar positions. The contrast was telling.
Post game and the leadership again need to look at themselves. Detail planning and how to handle situations is important. One of the interviews that you can not have missed is that of Mike Brown. It was clear to me that he had lost his head on the pitch. He has a reputation as being Mr Angry and at times that’s useful but not when it’s out of control and in interviews. By allowing that interview it just added ammunition to social media. Yes players have to be available for interviews but not all of them. This was another sign of poor leadership by the management staff.
The squad has taken a lot of criticism since the game including from former players. The players have come out and defended themselves, which they have every right to do. Unfortunately it’s distracting from the job at hand which is playing Australia. I’m probably being naive that this is possible but I believe that the coaches and players should have sat down afterwards a agreed to turn off social media. Then on the press day the coaches alone should have talked to the press. This would shield the players from a lot of distractions and allow them to concentrate on what’s important. Instead what we are seeing and hearing is arguing with ex-players in the press.
As we would say to our 3 year old daughter, what is needed now are good choices by the players and management. This group are very capable of going through still, they only lost by 3 points at the weekend despite all these bad decisions. They have won 4 of their last 5 games against Australia. It will be a hard game and probably come down to small margins maybe even a split second choice at the end of “do I put my hand up to block this kick or not?”