Searching for solace
Phil Clarke makes it his mission to identify the wider failings behind England's World Cup exit.
Last Updated: 21/11/08 1:45pm
In an attempt to cheer myself up after the semi-final defeat to New Zealand I went along to watch the latest 007 movie and realised where we've been going wrong. It's fine picking James Roby, James Graham and James Peacock but it's James Bond that we need in the team. He never seems to be on the losing side!
The Rugby League equivalent of 'Groundhog Day' happens every time that we lose to our Southern Hemisphere rivals. The usual questions are asked (for about a week) and the usual replies are given. Here is my summary.
Over the last 27 years I have had most experiences that International Rugby League has to offer. I started as a spectator before becoming a player which morphed into the Manager and has culminated in my position as a commentator. At some time in the future I will return to being a spectator again, at which point the cycle will be complete.
My summation of this World Cup is that England did not have the technical skills to compete and beat the Australians and New Zealanders. I don't think that there is a massive difference in terms of the physical, mental or tactical capabilities of the three major national squads.
It could be argued that over the last 15 years we put too much focus on our physical preparations in place of our technical ones. It is much easier for a player to go to a weights room and pump some iron than it is to go onto a field and practice passing a ball whilst running at full pace to a moving target (i.e. what a player has to do to score a try at the highest level of the game.)
Much has been said about the difference between the kicking game of the Kangaroos and the Kiwis and that from the England side. That again is a measure of the technical aspect of the game. "What are your skills like?" is the question that is repeatedly asked in international Test matches. Unfortunately we did not have as high a skill level as the two teams that will contest this week's Final.
A brief analysis of the reasons why England will not play in this week's World Cup Final would only answer some of the questions that fans ask in these circumstances. We have to take a much wider view to understand and appreciate the jigsaw puzzle which hinders our international chances of success.
Here are some of the problems.
1. The NRL is more intense than the Super League. Its environment breeds faster, more skillful, mentally tougher and more tactically aware players. The pass rate to get in it is very high and the standard to keep your place means that it is a survival of the fittest to stay there.
2. Australia has more than nine times as many people playing Rugby League than we do in the UK. They get to pick their best from a much bigger army of men. New Zealand struggle for numbers but have the advantage of their players playing weekly in the NRL.
3. Australia gets first pick of the best 'athlete' in many towns and cities. Rugby League is the most attractive and trendy sport in many parts of Australia. That is not the case in most places in the UK. The biggest, fastest, strongest and most skillful sportsman often choose to play football, cricket, rugby union or one of several other sports.
4. The Australian culture and climate are a massive advantage. Even in New Zealand, there is a much greater degree of importance given to sport than there is in the UK. All sports are celebrated and recognised.
5. A winning culture breeds a winning mentality. Australia have got into the habit of winning. (In 2003 David Waite's GB side pushed the Kangaroos into the last five minutes in all three tests but they still managed to win all three).
6. There are too many overseas players in Super League to give our national team a chance of beating their main rivals. Twenty years ago we had 16 teams playing in the top division and 12% of the players at that time were from overseas. In the 2008 Super League we had 11 British teams in the Super League and the overseas contingent made up 29% of the total playing pool.
7. The Professionalism of Rugby Union in the mid-90s means that we no longer have players like Martin Offiah or Jonathan Davies to help. We also lose some players to rugby union (e.g. Chris Ashton) and are losing out with many aspiring teenage players who now choose to play the 15-a-side game instead.
8. Political in-fighting within the sport of Rugby League has wasted so much time, money and energy that could have been better spent. People have been and continue to fight for their empire.
9. There has been no real investment in junior development from most Super League Clubs since the switch to Summer Rugby. If you analyse the percentage of intellectual or financial capital that has gone into the scholarship schemes in comparison to the first team you would realise that it out of balance. Australian clubs try to produce their own players and have done this better than most UK clubs. Young players are given an opportunity in the NRL much more than in Super League.
10. Most supporters, players, coaches and club owners are more interested in the domestic competition than they are in the International game. We sometimes get more fans to watch a club game than we do for a Test Match. We could do more to speed up our rate of improvement.
11. My experiences tells me that the standard of coaching in Australia is better than that in the UK (obviously this is a major generalisation and I do think that there are some excellent coaches doing great work in the UK).
12. We don't have as many players with the right attitude to be world-class players. (Again, a generalisation but go and monitor the attention to detail, preparation and extra training of your average Australian player to the average British one. This is not exclusive to rugby league but has been noted in football, rugby union, cricket also.)
13. Many people within rugby league are either in a state of denial or accepting of second best. In some areas we have gone backwards and do not seem prepared to go and learn from other sports. Rugby union is miles ahead of rugby league in some aspects and yet we don't seem to want to accept this and learn from it. We have regressed in terms of sports science and are falling behind many other sports. We need more people with an inquisitive outlook to improve the knowledge base.
14. There is no real research budget or thinking at the top level to help maximise our chances of international success.
15. The sport, as a whole, has a limited understanding of skill acquisition. Repetition of uncorrected mistakes just leads to more mistakes.
16. Some people claim that promotion and relegation forced clubs into short-term decision making. Time will tell if the new license system encourages longer term thinking and a willingness to produce rather than recruit players.
17. It could be argued that a more exciting and entertaining domestic competition in Super League, with less focus on completion rates and defence, actually damages or chances at international level.
18. The State of Origin competition is tougher than a Test match at times and prepares Australia's players to perform under intense pressure.
19. More extensive coverage of the game on TV helps to promote the game and educate young players and coaches.
20. I don't know what number 20 is and I would like to ask you. Please tell me what you think that I have missed. There is no rank order to the above list. Some are more important than others and some are inter linked.
Identifying all of the problems is one thing. Coming up with some solutions is much more difficult especially when we have no control over things like the weather, the government or the desires and wishes of the NRL clubs (who don't have much interest in International Rugby League.)
Please let me know if you think that you have any answers. Phil Clarke