OPINION - One Welshman’s lament: I’m sorry for England fans


The Rugby World Cup looms. It will be played in the northern hemisphere, which should give teams like England an advantage. Every international side has been working towards this tournament for four years. Elite players know their careers will be judged by it.

But just weeks out from the start, England's preparations are disrupted as two of their most important players become unavailable for selection.

However, that's not really the big story. England, rich, well-resourced, passionately supported, ought to be in peak condition to win their first World Cup since 2003. They are not. They look undercooked in every area, and have done for a long time. Their homegrown coach is patently out of his depth in international rugby. England do not know their best centre partnership and lack intelligent, independent leadership on the field. Ireland dominated the most recent Six Nations championship.

If England are to thrive at this World Cup they will need to do two things.

First, they must get lucky. Second, they will probably have to beat Wales. The Welsh are in comparably iffy shape. But under head coach Warren Gatland, they tend to get fit and do well at World Cups. They have a spine of excellent internationals like Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Liam Williams and Dan Lydiate, who know how to win under pressure.

Thus things stood on the eve of the 2015 World Cup, held in England. And so things stand in 2023, when the World Cup will be in France. Some names are different: whereas Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi were unavailable for disciplinary reasons in 2015, this time around it is Owen Farrell (banned for four games) and Billy Vunipola (banned for three, but which should boil down to two matches if he attends "tackle school").

The muddle-headed coach back then was Stuart Lancaster. Now it is Steve Borthwick. The centre groomed for stardom then thrown under the bus was Sam Burgess, now it's Henry Slade.

Wales haven't changed much — or at least their relative decline has been in step with England's. Both have got significantly worse in the last eight years. And whereas in 2015 Wales were in England's World Cup pool (and beat them at Twickenham, 28-25) now it seems more likely the sides will meet in the quarter-finals.

All the same, when you put these two world cups together, it is salutary. And it is bracing to realise how little England have learned. True, they almost came good in the 2019 World Cup in Japan, reaching the final. But time since then has been wasted, as England clung too long to their tyrannical, bunkered coach Eddie Jones, sacked him too late, then appointed the wrong man in Borthwick.

Borthwick is not a quick-fix galvaniser type. Like the old adage about planting trees, the best time to appoint Steve Borthwick was "several decades ago". Unlike planting trees, the next-best time to appoint Borthwick is not now.

Changing coaches so late in a World Cup cycle, England ought to have appointed someone with the personality and international pedigree to impose an effective playing style innate to English strengths. Someone who would give players ownership. Someone whose vision was a step above the Premiership. Someone like, say, Gatland.

That they did not is, with respect, on the RFU. All the same, it has been sad to watch this England side lumber through their warm-up matches with no spirit, no plan beyond a literally interpreted "kick for the stars" and all their aggression channelled into the specific area of illegal tackling.

As a card-carrying one-eyed Welshman, I have not said this very often in my life, but you feel for the England fans.

You feel all the more for them since the two best coaches in the world —Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards — who happen to be English, are coaching Ireland and France, the two favourites for the World Cup. These names would be the first two on most rugby followers' wish lists for the 2025 British and Irish Lions coaching set-up. But, well. Go figure.

What is the best thing that could happen in this World Cup? Pain. If England stutter unwatchably through their pool to a showdown with Wales, lose, and return home to catcalls and a general, urgent sense that Something Must Change, drastic action might just follow, as it did in 2015.

More dangerous, but given the World Cup draw, perhaps more likely, is that England, sans

Farrell, bed in George Ford or Marcus Smith at No10, summon up a bit of swagger in the pool matches, beat Wales/Australia/Fiji in the quarter-finals, then are hammered by the first good side they meet.

That would mean England reaching the semis or even the final. And it would therefore be easy for the RFU to mis-sell flying by the seat of our pants as "secret plan we had all along". Twickenham-branded paper would be pasted over all the yawning cracks. The chariot would continue to swing low and lower. And in four, eight, 12 years time, we will be writing this familiar lament all over again.