The most decorated, in-demand English coaches are all in France this week. The Rugby World Cup starts on Friday night, so of course they are. The problem is that not one of them is coaching the England rugby team.
Steve Borthwick is England boss, hurriedly thrust into the role in December when Eddie Jones was sacked for at least two wretched years — but in alarmist fashion given the proximity of the World Cup.
RFU chiefs insist Borthwick was their long-term target, and the overwhelming first choice for the role after interviewing and canvassing the views of a whopping 57 global rugby brains. Leading English lights Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and Stuart Lancaster are all strutting their stuff in France.
That none of them would be in the frame for a role with England speaks volumes about the RFU’s disarray under chief executive Bill Sweeney.
Defence supremo Edwards could spur hosts France to their first World Cup title, Farrell and Catt coach the world’s top-ranked team in Ireland and Lancaster has just joined Parisian aristocrat club Racing 92. All four have slipped through RFU fingers with varying degrees of absurdity, which bites all the harder given England’s chaotic World Cup preparation.
Borthwick led Leicester to the 2022 Gallagher Premiership title, and was forwards coach when England reached the 2019 World Cup final. The 43-year-old former England captain is doubtless a coach of great promise.
But six defeats in nine matches at the helm, including a record loss to France and a first-ever defeat by Fiji, leaves England at their lowest ebb.
The jewel in the crown of the world’s richest union, the England men’s Test team, is now ranked as low eighth in the world. England will open their World Cup campaign by facing Argentina on Saturday in Marseille, the Red Rose men receiving the easiest draw, with Japan, Chile and Samoa also in Pool D.
The class of 2023 will not meet any of the world’s top-four ranked teams until the semi-finals, and yet there is zero certainty that they can make it that far. For the four-time finalists and one-time winners, with the biggest budget and largest playing pool, this is crisis time.
Argentina are ranked above England, and deservedly so. The Pumas toppled Jones’s men at Twickenham in November, and the Test match evidence of the last year points only to a repeat at Stade Velodrome. Borthwick insists England’s slipshod defence and hamstrung attack can still come together in the nick of time on the edge of the Mediterranean.
Tomorrow night will reveal whether the England boss is right or misguided. This is Borthwick’s first head coaching role at Test level. The RFU trumpeted their replacement for Jones as boasting vast, global experience at all levels. Global, yes, vast, not yet.
Should England fail to conjure up a turnaround of form and fall short at another World Cup, it must be remembered that accountability ends at the very top
The gap between head coach and assistant is significant and Borthwick is yet to cross the divide convincingly. A catalogue of calamitous RFU decisions has led to all this, charting 15 years and more. Martin Johnson drove England to World Cup glory in 2003, but could not transfer his stellar captaincy to first-class leadership as a coach.
The 2011 World Cup in New Zealand was beset by dwarf-throwing antics on a boozy night out, then Manu Tuilagi jumping off a ferry into Auckland harbour.
Prop Dan Cole noted only this week that Tuilagi told him to hold his phone before he pulled that stunt. England lurched from Johnson to Lancaster to host the 2015 tournament, opting to promote one of the stars from within their youth pathway set-up. Andy Farrell and Catt came on board, but England failed to escape their group and promptly became the worst-performing hosts in World Cup history.
Lancaster and his coaches were dismissed. The mess that has followed has scattered some of England’s brightest minds out of reach. Lancaster led Leinster to the 2018 European title, alongside four domestic league crowns. Farrell and Catt have spurred Ireland to the world’s summit, heading into the World Cup on a run of 13 victories.
And what of that other English star shining so bright for Red Rose rivals? Rugby League great Edwards helped Wasps to four Premiership titles and two European Cups between 2001 and 2011. Then his one-time Wasps boss, Warren Gatland, tempted him to Wales, whereupon they claimed four Six Nations titles and twice reached the World Cup semis.
Edwards left Wales after the 2019 World Cup to join France, and now Les Bleus are among the hot favourites to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on home soil. The 56-year-old will send France fizzing into battle against New Zealand in Paris on Friday.
Edwards has won more than 50 top-level competitions as first player and now coach. And yet the RFU have never made a concerted effort to secure his services. The homespun Wiganer is now enjoying life on the Perpignan coast and, working with Fabien Galthie’s supreme France, has long since given up pondering the mystery.
Should England fail to conjure up a turnaround of form and fall short at another World Cup, Borthwick will be left facing the brickbats, but it must be remembered that accountability ends at the very top.