The juxtaposition is striking, particularly with Ireland, a country whose rugby resources – both playing and financial – are dwarfed by their neighbours across the Irish sea. The implication is that the English system, not just the England team, is struggling, with both senior and U20 teams in decline. As is often the case in sport, the RFU has placed its hopes on the coach. Steve Borthwick replaced Eddie Jones before this year’s Six Nations in the hope that a different approach will get the best out of a group of players who, it is assumed, have the talent to carry all before them. There may even be a sneaking hope that England could come good in time to challenge for the World Cup, particularly given their favourable draw.
This however assumes the issue is simply one of coaching. While Brendan McCullum’s transformation of England’s Test Cricket team demonstrates the impact that bold, innovative coaching can have, the likelihood for the RFU is that the current crop of English rugby players are simply not as good as the French or Irish. Eddie Jones may not have been a skittish selector, he may have never managed to complete his hunt for players with the talent necessary to compete for Grand Slams and World Cups.
Talent development is a game of outliers in which there are no guarantees. The Belgian football team have been ranked among the top 5 for the last decade, aided by the emergence of a freakishly good crop of players (Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku etc), rather than as a result an elite development system. Most predictions of where the Belgian football team will rank in 20 years have them significantly lower than 5th as they are likely to regress to their natural place in the hierarchy based on their population and the penetration of football among youth participants.
The All Blacks are perhaps the finest example of the opposite – a system that is so effective, it can overcome the natural disadvantage of population to make the emergence of outlier talent predictable, or even inevitable.
But what of England? Is this a case of bad luck or the inevitable consequence of a broken system? That England’s decline in senior Internationals is matched by a decline at youth level is certainly cause for concern, as is the fact that the domestic game is in a parlous financial state. There are enough long term markers to warrant further exploration into the system upon which England’s performance relies.