The Player’s Perspective: A comparative study into the resurgence of English Rugby

In 2009 England won half of their ten international fixtures, losing to Wales, Ireland, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand and beating Italy, France, Scotland and Argentina (twice). It was just another tawdry year in the post-2003 period where the quality of England’s play slumped dramatically in comparison against the legendary exploits of Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and co. It seemed as if the national team, having achieved the ultimate goal lost all focus for an extended period that included only a 36.3% winning ratio in 2008 and only a 27.3% ratio in 2006. But it was not that England’s player base collapsed, or that the domestic academy system fell apart, it was that the players lacked guidance following Sir Clive Woodward’s retirement. To demonstrate this, a comparison is to be made between England’s Six Nations team versus France in 2009 and the team selected for the same fixture earlier this year. But is the difference in quality between the teams really that noticeable?

Position 2009 2016
Full Back Delon Armitage – Twice European Champions Cup Winner with Toulon and Premiership finalist with London Irish in 2009. Armitage was strong under the high ball, a good counter-attacker and effective with the boot. * Mike Brown – Ultra-reliable under the high ball and with the speed to counter-attack. He does however lack the support lines and one-on-one tackling ability of Ben Smith, or Josh Lewsey.
Wing Mark Cueto – Long-time Sale winger who almost scored the crucial try against South Africa in 2007’s Rugby World Cup Final. Dynamic on the ball, but never blessed with burning pace or outstanding power. Anthony Watson – Talented and versatile, but largely a beneficiary of others’ brilliance. Watson will need to nail down his place in the England team to achieve ‘great’ status. *
Centre Mike Tindall – One of the few World Cup winners left playing in 2009, Tindall was brilliant in his heyday as a hard-hitting defender to complement Will Greenwood’s athleticism, but by 2009 was in the twilight of his career. Jonathan Joseph – Possessor of a wonderful step and even better foresight in defence, Joseph represents the hard-hitting attack favoured by Jones and has only grown under his guidance. *
Centre Riki Flutey – Useful utility back, but a clear example of England’s issues at centre. Flutey was drafted in to play for England late in his career and was never going to gain more than twenty caps. Owen Farrell – Versatile, super-reliable with the boot and a fantastic distributor of the ball at 12, Farrell is part of a new, hybrid group of kicking utility backs who can play with both ball in hand and without. *
Wing Ugo Monye – A flying winger for Harlequins, but often exposed at the highest level. A good player, but never in the same league as his predecessor Ben Cohen. * Jack Nowell – Possessed of decent pace and a good step, although injury prone. Nowell would benefit from bulking up to compete with the very best.
Fly Half Toby Flood – Arguably England’s most overrated fly half of the last quarter-century. Over-reliance upon Flood at international and domestic level served to inhibit trophy challenges, whilst his gangly manner hindered aggressive attacking. George Ford – The perfect foil for Farrell at 10 and offers more pace with ball in hand. Small and compact, and is occasionally overcome whilst tackling, but more than makes up with it with his attacking prowess. *
Scrum Half Harry Ellis – A reliable, and at his best, dangerous No. 9 whose career was unfortunately cut short by injury. Lacked the dynamism though to start for the Lions. * Danny Care – Overshadowed by the brilliance of Ben Youngs in the autumn internationals, Care is nonetheless a sniping runner from the base and accurate with the boot.
Number 8 Nick Easter – the old war-horse in a slightly younger form. Always proud to wear the jersey, but never as effective at creating forward momentum as his finely-toned successors. Billy Vunipola – Hugely impressive for England and arguably the world’s leading Number 8. Never fails to make yards from the base of the scrum and is imperious defensively. *
Flanker Joe Worsley – Another World Cup veteran and a fearsome defender, Worsley was one of the few who could stand equal to Schalk Burger and Jerry Collins at their best. Slowing by 2009. James Haskell – One of several players to be revived and re-energised under Jones. Haskell is a huge presence in the defensive line and surprisingly quick with ball in hand. *
Flanker Tom Croft – A supremely gifted flanker whose speed presaged today’s ultra-mobile front eight. He never achieved his true potential though due to injury, although he’s still playing. * Chris Robshaw – Pilloried in the press following England’s RWC performance in 2015. Robshaw came back with a bang with the captaincy a weight lifted from his shoulders. An ever present in the England team.
Lock Simon Shaw – A mongrel in the engine-room and never ready to back down. By 2009 though, Shaw was aging, as the second-row position began to evolve. George Kruis – A truly brilliant find by Saracens who runs the line-out with a vice-like grip and has brilliant facets in attack and defence, including the ability to run with the ball. *
Lock Steve Borthwick – The team’s nice guy, and now an inspiring coach, but as a player he was a mere functionary, unable to perform the heroics in the loose that England’s current crop of second-rows can. Maro Itoje – No other word for it, World Class! Itoje has emerged from nowhere in two years and is one of the most gifted lock-forwards to ever play the game, his running and turnover ability unparalleled. *
Prop Phil Vickery – A hardened warrior from the old school and a more than effective scrummager, but lacked the ability to play with ball in hand at speed. Dan Cole – Not the quickest and criticised for his scrummaging technique, nonetheless Cole fulfils his limited role within the team comfortably. *
Hooker Lee Mears – Underrated Bath hooker who had to wait for his opportunities. Was always reliable at the lineout and had more gas than his predecessors, but nonetheless lacked a killer edge against better teams. Dylan Hartley – Had a perfect year at international level, leading England to an 100% record. Whilst in the white jersey (at least) he has managed to channel his natural aggression into something more productive than thumping opponents. *
Prop Andrew Sheridan – A formidable scrummager who had his abilities eroded by injury and rule changes, Sheridan was a relic of a previous scrummaging age and had had his best days by 2009. Mako Vunipola – Fantastic in the tight and the loose, Vunipola often functions as an extra back-row forward with his running and turnover abilities and is more than comfortable passing the ball too. *

On the basis of player form and ability in 2009 and 2016, the 2016 vintage win hands down, 11 of their 15 players besting their predecessors. But this is not just down to the players themselves, the ability of those coaching them is crucial and indeed that has been the key to England’s success this year. Of those in the 2009 team who could have flourished under Jones, the dynamic-running Mears and monster-forward Sheridan appear the most likely beneficiaries, possibly replacing Hartley and Vunipola. It is also worth remembering that James Haskell had already gained 12 caps for England by 2009. Moreover, it is not as if England could not gain results in 2009, a 34-10 win against France is nothing to be sniffed at, and is markedly better than 2016’s 21-31 victory, and yet the team culture under Martin Johnson (and Andy Robinson, and to a lesser extent Stuart Lancaster) was weak and conflicted. Haskell has spoken of how only now he feels accepted into the England reckoning and the will to win that has been infused by Jones has bred a confidence and resilience that England have lacked, particularly against Southern Hemisphere opposition, in recent years. With Jones in charge, fairly ordinary players like Robshaw, Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley have been transformed into leaders and the strength of depth developed is even more promising. For England, 2017 means only one thing, bring it on!

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