Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Nostalgia is certainly not the word. But anyone over 30 left Twickenham after England's miserable display against France - which sent them to Dublin on Sunday fearing a third consecutive defeat and possible custody of this year's RBS Six Nations wooden spoon - reflecting that this is how things used to be. For those without memories BC, Before Cooke and Carling, and particularly Before Clive - it was more of a shock.

So let's have some perspective on this. All things, with the apparent exception of the French midfield, must pass. Teams endure decline and transition. Australian cricket, the All Blacks, the New York Yankees and Real Madrid have all had bad times. English rugby was never going to be immune.

A bad time perhaps for the discovery that England hope to win the next two World Cups and six of the next eight Six Nations titles, but there is no harm in aiming high. Nor should offence be taken at Schadenfreude elsewhere. The joke that England's 02 logo stands for points won and matches played is payback for the belief a few years ago that they should get shot of not-good-enough Celts and confine regular fixtures to their southern peers and France.

Similarly Celtic chuckles at a website projecting one English Test starter (the injured Julian White) and eight squad members, the same in both cases as Scotland, in a 44-man British and Irish Lions party are informed by memories of predictions of "14 Englishmen plus Brian O'Driscoll". Delight will be overtaken by a desire to see Steve Thompson, Richard Hill, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson at their best in New Zealand this summer.

Decline is rarely simple or monocausal. Coach Andy Robinson is feeling his way and seems unsure both about his best team and his handling of it, but the same was being said of Clive Woodward much further into his time as head coach.

Similarly, lay off Charlie Hodgson. He was only partly to blame for England's inability to threaten the Welsh line and not for their witless indiscipline in the face of minimal French pressure. At the same time England need to stop pretending that nothing much is wrong because they're only losing by the odd point. After winning the World Cup with an extra-time drop-goal, they know such margins are what separates good teams from the others.

Of course England has greater depth in talent than other nations but that does not mean transition can be seamless. The retirement of Martin Johnson, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio plus injuries to Jonny Wilkinson and Richard Hill represent a colossal loss of experience, know-how and mental edge, however gifted the replacements. Ireland has much less depth, but a clear edge in experience and know-how.

Lost amid that know-how was the ability to play right on the edge of rugby's vastly complicated offside and tackle rules. This is not a criticism, it is simply what good teams do without toppling into illegality. Ditto the ability to impose themselves physically. Where Martin Johnson's actions as "enforcer" were always calculated, making him all the more chilling and unpleasant, Danny Grewcock is unpredictable and uncontrolled.

Thompson's throwing-in problems have been well documented, not least because of the hooker's admirable acceptance of responsibility, but there is better news elsewhere in the line-out battery with Ben Kay's all-round performance against France suggesting that he at least is returning to pre-World Cup form.

In a transitional back division, Robinson should be applauded for sticking with Hodgson and Harry Ellis rather than flavour-of-the-month Andy Goode and the declining Matt Dawson. And while personal preference would start the powerful and gifted Ollie Smith, continuity is also welcome at centre.

They wouldn't win the World Cup at the moment, but then who would? New Zealand is the popular answer as both default option equivalent to Brazil in football and for their 45-point slaughter of France in November. But they finished bottom of the Tri-Nations and have fallen short in the past four World Cups.

It is worth asking why England's footballers don't win big championships. One reason is that other nations produce more talent and/or have better, more competitive leagues. Rugby is better placed in this respect, but recent success makes it vulnerable to the other problem - the assumption that they should always be best which underpins disorientating, mood swings, making them world-beaters when they play well and feckless embarrassments-to-the-shirt when they lose.

What English rugby needs most at the moment is a firm grasp of perspective.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article