As a vociferous English supporter sat in an Irish pub filled with Welsh fans in a French city, it goes without saying that I was far from popular with those in my immediate vicinity during the most thrilling Six Nations finale in the memory of even the most grizzled daffodil-sporting valley-men at our adjacent table.
That the focus was squarely – and thankfully – on the TV monitors as opposed to my outspoken, jingoistic support is a testament to electrifying nature of the rugby on display. A ten-minute George North second half hat-trick of tries barely even made headlines in the face of Ireland’s demolition of Scotland preceding the England v France points bonanza which left supporters enthralled, entertained and ultimately drained.
That they were pipped at the post by a top quality side will be of little comfort to England and Stuart Lancaster, nor will the fact that they posted a record-high score against their rivals across the channel. Yet one would imagine that all but the most pessimistic of fans would agree that the effort was a valiant one, and the quality of England’s attacking display in their own sacred ground bodes well ahead of a World Cup on home turf later this year.
However, it would seem that England, and specifically Stuart Lancaster, has at least one critic in the form of the chief executive of the Rugby Football union, Ian Ritchie: “I think we would have expected to have won the title by now, so this is not acceptable at all,” he said. “Let us be clear: things were entirely within our control, but we didn’t do what we should have done. “We did not take our chances and were not clever enough at certain times to deserve to win. There’s no point bleating about it: Ireland deserved their win because of what they did over the five matches. We did not do enough.” Coming from his boss, those words will no doubt haunt the thoughts of Stuart Lancaster as he takes a well-earned rest before commencing World Cup preparation in earnest; but is it a valid assessment of England’s current situation?
Whilst Wales and France have won the Six Nations four times apiece since 2003 – and Ireland three times – England have managed just one victory, and that preceded a woeful World Cup showing under Martin Johnson in 2011. Since Lancaster took over as head coach in 2011, England have dutifully held the runners-up trophy on every occasion, never quite clearing the final hurdle to claim the title for themselves. England are pouring more money and resources into player development than any of their rivals, yet still are unable to clinch the coveted title in face of opposition from their neighbours.
The beauty of sport, however, often lies in its unpredictability; investment does not necessarily equate to success. Moreover, England continue to bear the hallmarks of a side moving in the right direction. A look back to the pre-Lancaster period in 2011 does not make for enjoyable viewing for anybody associated with English rugby. Sexist remarks to female hotel workers, a raucous night out after a narrow victory against Argentina and of Tuilagi jumping from a ferry after England crashed out against France in the quarter-finals make for cringe-worthy flashbacks.
Under Lancaster, the culture of English rugby has changed. Once again, we find ourselves focussing on issues on the field rather than off it. That is something which even critical boss Ritchie accepts, having extended the contracts of the coaching team until the 2019 World Cup.
Ultimately, though, sport is a business driven by results. There will come a point, probably later this year, when Lancaster will have to be held accountable not just for England’s performance or for its off-field behaviour, but for its tournament success. They have a tough group containing both Wales and Australia, but failing to progress in front of its own supporters would, nevertheless, be a failure from which the head coach would surely be unable to recover.
Ian Ritchie’s comments were maladroit, they were thoughtless and they were unjustified considering the work that has been done in the last three years to recover from an all-round humiliating performance in New Zealand. But Lancaster’s biggest test still awaits him, and it is there that his future will be decided.
Should we England fans be hopeful? Our innate pessimism means that most of us probably aren’t. But a little part of me thinks that if England have the drive and the calibre to chase a title so agonisingly close from 26 points back, to put 55 points past France and refuse to accept defeat in the face of such long odds, surely there is a chance that we can replicate that, carried on to the tune of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ by thousands of fans in a packed Twickenham Stadium when it really, really matters? If we do, Ian Ritchie will no doubt be seen to publicly pat a few backs as though he never doubted it. If not, Lancaster’s’ time as head coach will probably be up.