In the immediate aftermath of England’s 2011 Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to France, there was a bloodbath. Sick and tired of the culture of alcohol-fuelled bravado that had touched the generation of players who had straddled the game’s transformation from amateur to professionalism, the RFU engaged in the biggest overhaul of the national set-up for the best part of 20 years.
The remaining survivors of the victorious 2003 World Cup squad were jettisoned – some more quietly than others – and the younger members of the side tinged with the excesses of their supposed mentors were left in no doubt that the boorish behaviour that had defined that trip would no longer be tolerated.
The RFU fought desperately to justify its dramatic change in direction by showing the door to coach Martin Johnson – the vaunted captain of that 2003 side – turning instead to schoolmaster-turned-rugby coach Stuart Lancaster to help enforce a cleaner, more accountable brand of English rugby.
The results were mixed. England finished second to a combative Wales in the 2012 Six Nations before repeating the trick the following season – seemingly set fair for a first Grand Slam in a decade, until collapsing dramatically during their final fixture against the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium.
The Lancaster project was given timely credibility by the rarest of wins against world champions New Zealand in the autumn between the two Six Nations campaigns and the English rugby watching public were becalmed by the new coach’s frank but serene persona. Sensible rugby could be successful rugby.
Ironically, it would be Wales’ own dramatic drop in form that would cost later Lancaster so dear – a quirk of the rankings left the Welsh, Australia and England in a group of death ahead of the 2015 World Cup held on these shores last autumn and the hosts, after a duo of tumultuous Saturday night Twickenham defeats at the hand of those two rivals, were out of their own party.
Bloodied and embarrassed, the RFU turned to Eddie Jones – architect of Japan’s remarkable tournament in which they’d beaten twice former World Cup winners South Africa in what will be remembered as one of the greatest shocks in the sport’s history – tasking the Australian with another culture change.
In nine matches under Jones, England are unbeaten – completing the Grand Slam that four times evaded Lancaster and producing an eyebrow raising series clean sweep against Australia away from home.
Conversely, however, the 56-year-old appears to have returned to the work hard, play hard mantra of the pre-professional era – encouraging the players to skate closer to the “should they really be doing this?” line than at any time since Mike Tindall dwarfed his side’s on field achievements at the 2011 World Cup. The RFU even contributed to a pre-Six Nations social, tasking Danny Care – once excommunicated from Lancaster’s squad after a drink driving ban – with the kitty.
The boys, it appears to have been concluded, need to be left alone to be boys.
All of this provides interesting context and lessons for the FA as they search high and low for answers after England limped out of Euro 2016 with a mournful humbling at the hands of surprise package Iceland in a night to rank above Bloemfontein and Charleroi in major championship infamy.
It proved a grisly and grossly unfair end to a career in top level management for coach Roy Hodgson – the multi-lingual, balanced and compassionate coach falling on his sword within an hour of the final whistle despite having overseen a flawless qualification campaign and relevant, recent victories over all four of the sides to eventually make the tournament’s semi-finals.
So, as the FA consider the merits of Sam Allardyce and Jurgen Klinsmann for the top job, should England’s footballers be given the stick or the carrot?
The strands of an English football post-mortem are infinitely more complicated than those facing the RFU – if not because the sense of entitlement afflicts not only the players, but the media and fans too.
The most common gripes surrounding youth level coaching, player hunger, a supposed “big club” bias in selection and an out-of-touch manager are interchangeable, depending on the scale of the failure and which other nations are succeeding at the time. When Spain won three consecutive major tournaments between 2008 and 2012, we were failing our kids, by forcing them to play 11-a-side football too early in their development, while coaches were too busy focusing on results to really put proper thought into player advancement.
If you listen to the sometimes feted individuals who last made serious headway into the latter stages of a major tournament in England colours – the Euro ’96 squad – then the Jones model of old school fun and frolics is the way to go. Boozy nights out as a team foster the sort of spirit likely to carry you through difficult moments of struggle, many argued, when Alan Shearer visited members of that team as part of a BBC documentary earlier this summer.
But, imagine if you can, what went through Paul Gascoigne’s mind as he ran back to the halfway line during golden goal extra-time of England’s semi-final clash with Germany at that championships – having failed to convert Shearer’s immaculate cross by the length of one of his late arriving studs.
Would one fewer beer with Teddy Sheringham or David Seaman during the course of the tournament have changed the destination of the trophy, or, without the booze, would we have been denied Gascoigne’s now devalued but championship defining goal against Scotland?
Alas, the FA might conclude as they plump for unfashionable Allardyce later this summer and get hammered by the press for a lack of imagination, success is the only blueprint for success.