The 2015 Rugby World Cup was an unmitigated disaster for the RFU and English Rugby, no matter what way you slice it.
Whatever success was achieved off the field was largely overshadowed by England’s poor performances on it as England became the first host nation to be knocked out in the tournament’s pool stages.
Soundly beaten by Australia and sunk by a Dan Biggar penalty goal against Wales, Head Coach Stuart Lancaster submitted his resignation amidst a tidal wave of criticism, but yet in the aftermath of England’s worst ever World Cup performance comes a silver lining – the success of English clubs on a European stage.
The appointment of Eddie Jones as England Coach during the week was met with mixed critcism with some pointing to his magnificent progress made with Japan while others were more familiar with a lack of progress and results on Australian shores.
Jones said he was happy to continue the RFU’s policy of only selecting home-based players for the national team and judging by the weekend’s performances, it may not necessarily be a bad idea.
The financial allure of French rugby is always going to be a threat to the Premiership and the RFU, but after a highly successful weekend which saw every English club win in both the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup, it appears that talent is not the issue.
Saracens secured a big away win at Ulster, Leicester predictably demolished Treviso, Bath hung on to dispose of a fast-finishing Leinster and Wasps dismantled and outplayed a more fancied and more star-studded Toulon side while Exeter triumphed over Bordeaux.
It’s just the weekend that England Rugby, and even more so its fans needed. The World Cup created a disconnect with English fans and the RFU with many feeling that this was a classic case of the media building England up to be a lot more than they realistically were.
The fact was, if it hadn’t been for some poor captaining, some ill-discipline, some bizarre selections and omissions and a greater team identity, England may have fared better. That’s a lot of “ifs” and a very brief way of summarising a horrific campaign, but in essence a lack of talent wasn’t necessarily to blame for England’s downfall.
The talent is there and this weekend’s European games were a testament to that talent. Brendon O’Connor backed up a breakout game against Stade Francais with a Man of the Match performance against Treviso, Henry Slade’s 14-point haul against Bordeaux prompted national selection talks once again, James Gaskell and Elliot Daly were mightily impressive against Toulon. All fine players who failed to see the pitch during any of England’s meaningful games at last month’s World Cup.
English Rugby is crying out for an overhaul and Eddie Jones has vowed to wipe the slate clean which is positive for players and fans alike. Jones knows that club success doesn’t always translate across to the national side with his experiences in 2005 serving as validation.
The Waratahs made the Super Rugby final in 2005 but it seemingly had no effect on the national team with the Wallabies losing eight of their last nine games of the season resulting in Jones’ sacking. Previous difficulties aside, the 55-year-old will be encouraged by the success of the English sides from the weekend and will take confidence in the fact that those that were omitted from Lancaster’s plans last month, may very well be at the core of his going forward.
English rugby is going through a re-building process and while they have a lot of work to do yet, promising club performances by relatively young players on a European stage is surely not a bad way to start.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena