Tag Archives: England

Every England manager ranked: 15th-1st

As England play their 1,000th match against Montenegro at Wembley on November 14th, Elephant Sport takes a look at the men who have taken charge of the Three Lions down the years.

15. Sam Allardyce (2016)

‘Big Sam’ is the hardest to judge of them all, seeing as he only had one game in charge – an utterly forgettable game against Slovakia that was won by Adam Lallana in the 95th-minute.

His reign was brought to an abrupt and infamous end after a newspaper sting purported to show him offering advice on how to “get around” rules on third-party player ownership.

Despite being the only permanent England manager with a 100% win record, the embarrassment that Allardyce brought on the FA and the briefness of his reign puts him stone dead last in this list.

14. Steve McClaren (2006-2007)

He was nicknamed the ‘wally with the brolly’ after he sheltered under an umbrella in the pouring rain during England’s 3-2 defeat to Croatia at Wembley – a result that ended their hopes of reaching the 2008 European Championships.

Generally viewed as one of the Three Lions’ least inspiring managers, and considering the quality of the squad McClaren had at his disposal, the failure to qualify for Euro 2008 has to go down as one of the biggest under-achievements in England’s history.

13. Kevin Keegan (1999-2000)

Keegan was an icon whilst representing England in his playing days, but he failed to achieve the same distinguished status as manager – to put it politely.

The former Newcastle United boss’ side exited Euro 2000 after Phil Neville gave a last-minute penalty away in a 3-2 defeat to Romania, and dramatically quit his role as boss after a 1-0 defeat against Germany in the last-ever match at the old Wembley.

It’s fair to say it wasn’t an enjoyable time for England fans – nor, by his admission, was it an enjoyable time for Keegan, later saying he “found it hard to fill in the time”.

12. Graham Taylor (1990-1993)

Taylor remains a well-respected figure in football for his success with Watford and Aston Villa in the 80’s and 90’s but, much like Keegan, he proved that international management isn’t for everyone, with an ignominious stint in charge of England.

The ex-Villa boss was famously depicted as a turnip on the front of a tabloid newspaper following England’s 3-2 defeat to Sweden in Euro 1992 and, after the dismal failure to qualify for the World Cup in the USA, resigned from his post in 1993.

11. Don Revie (1974-1977)

Revie was the mastermind of the great Leeds United team of the 70’s, but failed to live up to expectations as England manager.

He was appointed to much fanfare in 1974, but the Leeds legend failed to get England to Euro 1976 and left for a highly-lucrative move to coach the United Arab Emirates a year later. It was always going to be tough to succeed the great Sir Alf Ramsay, but someone of Revie’s calibre should have performed a lot better.

10. Fabio Capello (2008-2012)

Capello was one of the biggest names in football management when he got the England job in 2008. Considering his huge reputation as a manager across Europe, coupled with the talented crop of players at his disposal, it was difficult to see how this could possibly go wrong – but it did.

Despite a very strong qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010, the tournament itself was a disaster. A dreary 0-0 draw with Algeria was sandwiched in between a Rob Green howler against USA and a thrashing against old rivals Germany.

The Italian dramatically resigned from his post after John Terry was stripped of the captaincy against his wishes. Not many England fans were sad to see the back of him.

9. Sven Goran-Eriksson (2001-2006)

The Swede became the first foreign manager of the England national team in 2001 when he replaced Kevin Keegan. Eriksson was seen as something of a master tactician and, following success in Serie A with Sampdoria and Lazio, it seemed like a forward-thinking choice.

However – despite having the so-called ‘golden generation’ at his disposal – Sven could only guide England to the quarter-final stage of the 2002 World Cup, Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup. He really should have done a lot better with the squad that he had, and the way that quality was squandered means he won’t be remembered fondly as England boss.

8. Roy Hodgson (2012-2016)

The former Liverpool and Inter Milan manager swooped in and pinched the England job from right under Harry Redknapp’s nose in 2012 after Capello dramatically walked out just a few months before the start of the European Championships.

Hodgson steered England to the quarter-finals of that tournament, where they were ultimately knocked out on penalties by Italy. That wasn’t a bad achievement under the circumstances, but that’s as good as it got for him.

His side crashed out at the group-stage of the 2014 World Cup and were then embarrassingly dumped out of Euro 2016 by Iceland, which led him to resign in his post-match press conference.

He maneuvered some tricky circumstances well and always managed to guide England through strong qualifying campaigns, but the way his sides crumbled at the finals of major tournaments leaves Hodgson mid-table in this list.

7. Ron Greenwood (1977-1982)

Greenwood isn’t somebody that is particularly well-remembered and wasn’t that highly thought-of at the time either; mainly due to him not being Brian Clough, who many thought should have been given the job back in 1977.

However, he was important in the revival of England; finally steering the nation back into a major tournament in 1980 after a decade-long absence. Greenwood’s tenure also included the landmark selection of England’s first-ever black player when Viv Anderson was included in the squad in 1978.

His England team went unbeaten at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, but missed out on a semi-final spot after failing to beat the hosts in the second group stage. Despite that, Greenwood remains a bit of a forgotten man in England’s history and, therefore, only manages seventh place on this list.

6. Glenn Hoddle (1996-1999)

Hoddle’s ideas, on paper, looked exciting. As befitted one of the most exciting talents of his generation, his aim were to play an attacking, stylish brand of football and drag the national team into a modern era of the game.

His stint in charge was eventful. He brought a young Michael Owen into the squad for the World Cup in 1998 and, well, the rest is history, as they say. That was also the match where David Beckham was infamously sent off for petuntately kicking out at Diego Simeone.

He left the role in controversial circumstances after doing an interview where he seemed to suggest that people with disabilities were being punished for sins in a former life. Unsurprisingly, the FA didn’t react well to these statements and fired him soon after.

There’s a feeling that Hoddle left before he really got started and could have been more successful. Due to some of the failings of many of the managers who’ve followed him, he’s ranked fairly highly in this list.

5. Walter Winterbottom (1946-1962)

Seeing as Winterbottom left his post nearly 60 years ago, it’s hardly surprising that many England fans will never have heard of him.

He was England’s first-ever manager and is the longest-serving coach in the history of the nation, staying in charge for 16 years. He took England to four World Cup tournaments and also helped revolutionise the managerial role, putting more emphasis on coaching players on the training ground.

Some argue that he never really recovered from the embarrassing 6-3 home defeat to Hungary in 1953 and his sides never went far enough at major tournaments, but his pioneering influence as coach paved the way for future managers and leaves him with a strong legacy in the game.

4. Gareth Southgate (2016-present)

After finding themselves in a post-Allardyce wilderness, Southgate sewed England back together and made watching them enjoyable again in that unforgettable summer of sun, singing and beer-throwing in 2018.

He certainly wasn’t everyone’s first choice when he took the reins in 2016; seen as just another FA ‘yes man’. But he soon stamped his authority on the side by phasing out an ageing Wayne Rooney, bringing through young players and switching to a three-at-the-back system for the World Cup.

The former U21 boss saw his changes work wonders as England reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990; falling at the penultimate hurdle against Croatia. It’s still early days in Southgate’s tenure, but the summer of ‘18 won’t be forgotten in a hurry and that puts the current coach up in fourth-place.

3. Terry Venables (1994-1996)

Much like Southgate, Venables put the enjoyment back into watching England after the failure of missing out on a place at the World Cup in 1994. England really captured the imagination of a nation on home soil at Euro ’96 and, again, much like Southgate, helped produce another unforgettable summer in the nation’s sporting history. The 4-1 hammering of the Netherlands remains one of England’s all-time great performances.

He didn’t stick around for as long as perhaps he should have, but the memories he helped created coupled with the way he got the best out of his players – Paul Gascoigne in particular – means he sneaks into the top-three.

2. Bobby Robson (1982-1990)

Robson is remembered as the suave, charming, twinkly-eyed coach who nearly guided England to their second World Cup triumph in 1990. He undoubtedly goes down as a legend, but he wasn’t always liked in the same way that he is now.

The former Ipswich and Barcelona boss had a mixed record at tournaments and was subject to mass derision in the press before that memorable World Cup campaign of 1990 after a fairly disastrous Euro 1988, where England lost all three of the matches they played.

However, Robson turned things around in Italy two years later; cementing himself as a legend within the game.

1. Alf Ramsey (1963-1974)

It won’t come as much surprise to anyone that Sir Alf Ramsey tops this list, considering he remains the only England manager to life the World Cup aloft.

The second longest-serving boss guided a side that contained the likes of Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton to the nation’s only trophy in 1966 with a famous 4-2 win over West Germany at Wembley Stadium.

Despite his tenure tailing off and failing to lead the side to Euro 1972 and the 1974 World Cup, it’s difficult to look beyond Ramsey as the greatest England manager of all time. It’s been over 60 years now and there’s still not been a man to repeat his feat. It’ll be interesting to see how much longer that wait goes on…

Image credits: Dmitry Sadovnikov, Rob Anefo & Anton Zaitsevvia via Wikipedia Commons.

England Three Lions

Does the future look bright for England?

Despite the defeat by Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup, England  and their fans have taken more positives from the Russia 2018 then negatives.

But after the Three Lions had their limitations exposed by a decent but by no means great Croatian side, the challenge must be to get better if they are to be among the favourites for Euro 2020.

Boss Gareth Southgate has undoubtedly set England on the right path by guiding them to within a win of reaching the final, and getting to their last four of a World Cup for the time since 1990 was a considerable achievement in itself.

But as Southgate said: “We’ve got to use it as a springboard to consistently reach the latter stages of tournaments.”

Improvements needed

There is no ignoring England’s problem with creating opportunities; they scored only four open-play goals from inside the box in Russia.

Although they scored more goals (12) than in any previous World Cup, they were over-reliant on their ability to score from set plays, and pundits have highlighted a lack of creativity, and the importance of having an impactful playmaker in midfield.

Converting more chances into goals is another issue for England. In the semi-finals, they could have been 2-0 or 3-0 up in the first half but squandered several opportunities and allowed Croatia to get back into the game.

Overcoming the Croatians to reach the final was entirely possible, but a youthful England team allowed their more experienced opponents to stay calm and work themselves into a winning position.

By the end, Southgate’s men had run out of energy and ideas – no one more so than Harry Kane who looked a shadow of the striker so feared by opponents early in the tournament.

The next steps

Southgate has grown into his role and his positive but realistic approach created an England team maturing young talents in the image of their manager.

Most pundits and observers regarded reaching the quarter-finals as a success with the young squad that was chosen, but more respect and admiration was added by reaching the final four. England as a nation fell back in love with its national team.

Of course, their group loss to Belgium offered England a more advantageous path to the later stages. The third youngest squad in Russia didn’t have the experience to take things a step further, but they will have learnt from their disappointment, and can hopefully apply those painful lessons at future tournaments.

Formation

England played well in a 3-5-2 formation, but the question moving forward is whether it can work in all situations. When Croatia began pressing and running the ball down the flanks, swinging in dangerous crosses, a switch to 4-3-3 would have helped. But it would have been a big call if not rehearsed and it is understandable that, to build confidence, Southgate has focused on specialising in one system.

However, when opponents work out how to exploit the weaknesses of your preferred system, it’s vital to have a Plan B. This is definitely a critical aspect of improving England’s young squad for the tournaments ahead.

At least, in Jordan Pickford, England seem to have found a goalkeeper who can rise to the big occasions – something they have not always been able to rely on in recent tournaments.

Pickford made his competitive debut in Russia and gained widespread respect thanks to his fine performances, as did Harry Maguire as a centre back with an unquenchable desire to get forward.  Both have bright futures as essential parts of the national team.

Management

It felt like Southgate managed to get away with making dubious changes against both Columbia and Croatia. The introduction of Eric Dier played a significant role in preventing England from keeping the ball, and during the semi-final, this impacted the team towards the end of extra-time.

Southgate has accomplished more than any other England manager in the past decade by picking players with the ability (or potential) to strengthen his preferred system.

However, there was a case for having the likes of James Milner, or another experienced player on the field, at least towards later stages of each match, encouraging the team to stay focused and keeping everyone motivated.

In the semi-final, Marcus Rashford replaced Raheem Sterling but this failed to answer to the problem of Croatia’s dominance during the second half. Should Southgate have made more use Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who has game-changing abilities as an attacking midfielder?

Southgate admitted: “There was just a period in the second half where it looked like we had the lead and didn’t want to give it away, rather than keep playing. We just lost a bit of composure in that period, and Croatia’s experience told.”

Southgate deserves credit but accepts being in front and allowing the lead to slip away, as it did against both Columbia and Croatia, is something that needs to change. It could have made the difference between being one match away from a final and actually reaching it.

Future

Southgate joins that handful of England managers who can rightly feel they have done a good job at a major tournament.

The transformation in England’s fortunes that he brought about with a young squad made the nation proud of its team again as football fleetingly appeared to be ‘coming home’.

With key players such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Adam Lallana hoping to return to the national set-up, Southgate’s options may be boosted ahead of Euro 2020, some of which will take place in the UK.

“We have to keep improving, and these guys will improve,” he asserted. “I think we’ve managed to get a lot from this group of players, and play in a way that highlighted some of our strengths and hid some of our weaknesses.”

England have taken significant strides towards becoming a team who work hard for each other and believe they can succeed. Winning two knockout games will have boosted their confidence, particularly the victory via a penalties against Colombia as England finally banished their World Cup shootout hoodoo.

Further improvements are needed, and some of England’s more inexperienced players need more game time for their clubs in the Premier League.

Southgate’s pool of talent is not a deep one, and England’s recent success in age-group tournaments won’t count for much if the young talents involved don’t get the chance to kick on at domestic level.

The future looks bright for England if those upcoming talents can be fully developed, and the senior team’s success in Russia will have fuelled their dreams of representing their nation.

The 2018 World Cup seemingly fired up the whole of England again after a period when successive poor tournaments had sapped the spirit and energy of supporters. Their achievements in Russia give Southgate and his young team, who made the country proud, a chance to take things to the next level.

England Three Lions photo by Keith Williamson via Flickr Creative Commons

England stuck in quicksand as tour to South Africa looms

A summer Test series turnover to South Africa seems inescapable unless England address the many factors that led to their Six Nations slump.

In the final round of fixtures, Eddie Jones’s team lost 15-24 to champions Ireland at Twickenham, and ended up finishing a lowly fifth in the table.

But even beating the Irish to pour cold water on their St Patrick’s Day and Grand Slam parade would only have papered over the problems that England currently face.

As it was, Jonny May’s last-minute try was not enough to spare the blushes of the lacklustre hosts who, across the tournament, could only amass 10 points more on the pitch than whipping boys Italy.

A crisis? Jones and his players don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, so long as the debilitating issues that led to England’s worst finish in 41 years are addressed – and quickly.

Despite Sir Clive Woodward’s claims that England are now “staring down the barrel”, a summer resurgence against the Springboks is well within the realms of possibility. But the amendments and adjustments needed are four-fold.

Quick ball

An imperative product of any successful breakdown; however England’s ruck was comprehensively pulverised during this tournament, pilling immense pressure on the distribution of scrum-halves Danny Care and the returning Richard Wigglesworth, who had a torrid time against the Irish.

The decision to field an ebbing James Haskell was met with hostility from fans. As Jones plots to turn water into wine come June, he should look no further than 21-year-old open side Sam Underhill, who is expected to make his return for the SA series.

Although the ruck showed slight improvement against the Irish, it was still a far cry from the standard needed to see off the Springboks – and to stand any chance of beating New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Better discipline

If the sound captured by referee Arund Gardner’s mic is to be trusted, the need for better discipline is a sentiment England captain Dylan Hartley shares.

Cries of “Discipline!” could be heard from the Saints hooker as he watched his side yet again make basic errors in transition and with ball in hand.

The Red Roses continued their Six Nation trend of ragged unruliness, but added an absence of composure against the Irish. This impacted on the scoreline, with England giving a way far too many penalties in all thirds, allowing a pressure lapse and the visitors to effectively pull their socks up.

England’s ability to finish a game strongly quickly becomes null and void if they trudge to the changing room 16 points down at the break. And although one of Jones’ best qualities is his ability to galvanise a squad, the discipline problem is as May suggested “an individual thing”, and improving it depends on strength of character.

A backline make-over 

The decision to drop George Ford and rotate the backline came with no overwhelming improvement to the fluency of midfield play. England’s running lines were very basic and predictable, giving very little option for Farrell to imprint on the game in Twickenham’s biting winds.

Jones does, however, admit to be flirting with the idea of introducing a specialist backs coach, but the problem stretches beyond that to the need for succinct passing moves and outside running lines.

Ireland’s defence seldom looked like cracking against the English, with Ben Te’o left bewildered and the dynamic centre position a real problem.

But whisper it quietly, Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester form appears to be carrying some sort of international promise. And should he be included (if fit) in the summer, a centre of such ferocious stature with such an ability to commit defenders as he does, should go some way to fixing the problem.

Rest and recuperation

 A hangover from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour was inevitable. The statistics corroborate this, with England’s previous string of three defeats following the 2005 Lions Tour, and they went on to lose six consecutively.

The tumult and exhaustion of this year’s Six Nations campaign was transparent, with England’s Lions having played as much as double the club rugby as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish counterparts, resulting in increased calls for centralised contracts in the days following the Irish invasion.

Calls that will come to no avail, however, as the RFU’s current deal with the Aviva Premiership detailing club control over players, runs until 2024, meaning the boys will have to just suck it up.

The good news is, Jones seems to be entertaining the idea of resting some of his Lions this summer, which bodes well for the future of young talent and the development of the team.

England’s defeat to the Irish was not for lack of effort, but they looked sapped of all sustained intensity needed to compete on an international stage.

The media talked up the team’s regression, but a lot of this was just hyperbole. But coming in a week when Jones’ disparaging comments at a sponsor’s event about the “scummy Irish” came to light, it was apt that Joe Schmidt’s men underlined their status as Europe’s power players.

England Three Lions

Five things that need to change for England

After years of England underachieving in major tournaments, many Three Lions fans find themselves looking ahead to the 2018 World Cup Finals expecting little from their team beyond yet more failure.

If that sounds a bit harsh, cast your mind back to Euro 2016, and the implosion against Iceland – a country with a population of just 332,000.

That defeat sounded the death knell for manager Roy Hodgson, who also oversaw two losses and a draw (0-0 against Costa Rica) at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Understated current boss Gareth Southgate doesn’t play hype game, and has some decent young players at his disposal, but few believe England will really shine in Russia.

It may be too late for this summer, but there are still some things that could be put in place to boost their prospects on the biggest stages.

Winter break

It’s a commonly held belief that the likes of Spain Germany, France and Italy tend to do better at major tournaments because their domestic leagues take a mid-season winter break.

The argument runs that this gives players a chance to recharge their batteries, get over niggling injuries, and feel less burnt out come the end of the campaign.

There are, indeed, plenty of players getting injured during the December-January, when the Premier League fixtures come thick and fast, particularly over the festive period.

In December 2016, 113 missed games due to injury, and the figure rose in January 2017 to 143. There was 150 hamstring injuries in the 16/17 season which resulted in a total of 4,165 days missed.

England often go into tournaments missing key players through injury, or praying that no-one else picks up a knock in the early games.

Mind you, even without injuries, England performances in tournaments are often described as fatigued and boring.

Some claim the relentless physicality of the Premier League takes it toll, but is this – and not having a winter break – just a poor excuse for England’s underachievement?

Squad selection

Players are often picked on reputation and get the benefit of the doubt if they play for one of the so-called bigger teams; a prime example of this is Jordan Henderson.

His selection in the England squad is baffling when based on current form, and Southgate should now take him out of his plans and be ruthless like he was with Wayne Rooney.

Right now, players such as Jack Wilshere, Harry Winks and Eric Dier all offer more. Dropping Henderson and Gary Cahill would be just the start.

We’ve also had players switch allegiances. The main one that comes to mind is Wilfred Zaha, who represented England at under-19, under-21 and full international level in friendlies before opting to play for the country of his birth, Ivory Coast.

England have no one like him; skilful, pacy and unpredictable, someone who loves to take on and beat players.

Because his career at Manchester United didn’t work out for whatever reason, he found himself back at Crystal Palace putting in great performances but still being ignored by England which eventually led to him playing for Les Elephants.

What we will most likely see in the next major tournament is Arsenal’s Danny Welbeck being thrown out on the left wing, even though he is naturally a number nine, because he ‘works hard’ off the ball. It’s easy to see why Zaha made the decision to switch.

Taking responsibility

The players also need to take more responsibility. Making sure that they are mentally and physically able to deal with the expectations of international football is something that is forefront.

Good performances at major tournaments is key to re-gaining the enthusiasm of England fans.

One of the major things that has kept England from moving forward is the way they play. Being able to think for themselves is something that is easy to avoid at a club level, but it’s where the problems start in the international game.

England’s failure to express themselves under pressure, and actually looking scared to fail, has left them playing in stagnant, robotic patterns.

Compare England to a team like Wales who, although they only have one stand-out player in Gareth Bale, have a fearless and hardworking attitude that served them well at Euro 2016, beating Belgium, who were favourites to win the tournament, and then losing to eventual winners Portugal in the semi -finals.

If England take more risks and try to win games rather than trying not to lose them, they might stand a better chance.

High targets

The feeling exists that because the Premier League is deemed the best league in the world (which is a debate for another day), England should at least make the semi-finals at major tournaments.

But if you dig a bit deeper, you realise that most of the Premier League teams have large numbers of players from different countries playing for them.

Nearly 70% of players in the EPL are actually foreign, and this doesn’t leave much room for the young English talent to come through.

Prime examples of this are two of Chelsea’s many young players out on loan, Tammy Abraham and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Both have not really been given a fair crack at Stamford Bridge because the club would rather go out and buy tried-and-tested foreign talent than giving their academy prospects a chance.

It is understandable that fans demand their clubs recruit world-class players, but if they don’t promote homegrown young players, the team that really suffers is England.

Without getting first team experience in the league and European competitions under their belt, the best young English players won’t realise their potential.

Do the fans care anymore?

Due to England’s lack of achievement, many in their fanbase England have lost interest in the team. Wembley is a great stadium but hardly ever sells out, and attendances are significantly lower for friendlies.

In my opinion, what would revive the interest in England is if the team went on the road.

By playing international matches all around the country, the team would reconnect with their fans, much as they did in the interim period when the new Wembley Stadium was being built.

England’s recent success at age-group tournaments shows they have reasons to be optimistic about the future, but only if these action points are turned in reality.

England Three Lions photo by Keith Williamson via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Change not for the better at rugby union’s grassroots

Having been inspired by England’s 2003 World Cup success, I was started playing tag rugby that winter.

Aged six or seven, I joined my local club, Esher, and played through its age-group teams for the next 11 years.

Grassroots rugby is something that has been important to me ever since. Those roots are precious and need nurturing.

A big part of that is the valuable life lessons the sport teaches its youngsters. These include respect for the referee, and it’s always been a virtuous circle.

Young players grow up respecting match officials and carry this through to adulthood, where they act as role models for the next generation.

Evidence

Compare that to the dissent and disrespect that’s become part and parcel of football.

Players at the highest levels harass and harangue referees while their managers abuse fourth officials on the touchline.

The risk is that young players will emulate this behaviour, but could this become a rugby problem as well?

There is evidence that the game’s long-cherished culture of respect is changing.

Steve Grainger, rugby development director at the Rugby Football Union, believes that an influx of new players and their parents is having an effect.

Success

These youngsters, encouraged by their families, are inspired – just like I was 14 years ago – by England’s recent success, but also by the increasingly lucrative rewards available in the professional ranks.

“The stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it”

Grainger believes verbal abuse from parents and coaches on the sidelines in the amateur game is a bigger problem than player dissent.

“We are starting to see some challenges in touchline behaviour,” Grainger told BBC Radio 5 live.

“Traditionally, a lot of kids that have come into the sport because their parents have been involved in it, so you have a culture there,” he said.

“As we broaden that, we are bringing in parents who themselves have had no exposure to rugby.”

Influx

Unfortunately, and without wishing to negatively stereotype, the behaviour Grainger is referring to has been around in football for many years.

Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Football Association is preparing to to relaunch its Respect campaign as the verbal and physical abuse towards match officials at grassroots level increases.

Maybe it is because the stakes are higher now in rugby as more people realise that a career can be made from playing it – if you are good enough.

Average annual salaries in the Aviva Premiership are now around £100,000 – more for ‘marquee’ signings and experienced players – and gaining international recognition can massively boost that figure.

The top 10 earners in the Premiership all earn in excess of £290,000 a year. No.1 is Manu Tuilagi at Leicester Tigers on £425,000.

Semi-pro woes

Esher RFC has always prided itself on being a successful semi-professional club. This culminated in 2008, when the club took on Northampton Saints in the National League 1 – now called the Championship.

“A club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially”

When they played the Saints that season, the opposition included players such as future England captain Dylan Hartley.

A club of Esher’s size and resources, however, was never going to be able to survive in the long-term at such a high level, and they currently play in National League One – rugby union’s equivalent of football’s League One third tier.

They’ve still managed to attract quality players in recent years including Fiji’s Nicky Little, plus brothers Steffon and Bevon Armitage. The former now plays at Toulon.

Lured away

But living strictly within its means, while other teams have continued to embrace professionalism, means many of Esher’s best young prospects – including some I used to play with as a teenager – are lured away to bigger clubs.

In some instances it proved divisive as players have flitted around different teams, trying to work out which one offers them the best chance of making it big.

However, Esher’s achievements have also accrued benefits, and Premiership clubs often send younger players there on loan. Esher helped to hone the talent of George Lowe of Harlequins, and he is now regular starter for Quins.

But a club such as Esher has to constantly ensure it doesn’t overreach itself financially.

Justify

In March last year year, Esher told director of rugby Mike Schmidt that that his contract would not be renewed after 11 years.

mike-schmid (Credit: Get Surrey)
Esher had to part with Mike Schmidt

Esher’s chairman of rugby, TV presenter John Inverdale, said the decision was entirely down to financial reasons.

“It’s getting harder and harder to justify the expenditure at the second and third levels of the English game,” he explained.

Given Schmidt’s key role in Esher’s rise to the heights of playing in the second tier, it was a sad way for that relationship to end – but such are the realities of an increasingly professional game.

As modern rugby evolves, clubs like Esher, who are the lifeblood of the game, are struggling to keep up with its demands.

The England national team’s record-breaking run should be inspiring a feel-good factor in the sport.

But unless the grassroots game at clubs like Esher is taking into account, rugby’s future may not be quite so healthy and secure after all.

Confusion reigns over rugby union’s high tackle laws

Concussions have increasingly become an issue for concern in elite rugby union. In recent years, the number of these potentially serious head injuries have soared by 59% in the Premiership.

Players are bigger, fitter, faster and stronger, the hits are harder, so it’s no surprise that a re-think of the rules around tackling has happened.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly” – Jonathan Davies

Several high-profile incidents have fuelled calls for more to done to protect the health and safety of those on the pitch.

Northampton Saints were heavily criticised after letting their Wales and Lions international winger George North play on after seemingly lost consciousness (see image at top) following a collision with Leicester’s Adam Thompstone.

North was cleared to return to the game, but BT Sport pundit Ugo Monye said at the time: “I don’t think George North should [still] be on the pitch; it’s a simple as that.”

Long-term effects

The England Professional Rugby Injury Surveillance Project, published in collaboration with Premiership Rugby and the Rugby Players’ Association, showed that although the rate of injuries remained stable during the 2013-14 season, their severity continues to rise in the professional game.

The Rugby Football Union has recruited former England internationals to pioneer a study into the long-term effects of playing rugby.

World Rugby have also issued a revision to its laws which came into effect on the January 3rd.

It has increased the severity of the punishment for reckless tackles, with a minimum sanction of yellow card and a red where deemed appropriate.

It has also encouraged an increase in any accompanying bans, but the changes have confused coaches, players and spectators alike.

Fallen foul

Ex-Wales star Jonathan Davies, now a BBC pundit, said: “Inexperienced referees have gone berserk in imposing yellow cards.

“It’s a brilliant directive, but its not being refereed properly. They’ve gone to the letter of the law, and it’s gone crazy.”

“Wayne Barnes admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them”

Davies argued that referees need to use common sense about what can be considered a ‘high shot’ and is a ‘cheap’ one.

A player who has fallen foul of this recently is England international Brad Barritt.

The Saracens centre was banned for three weeks after a high tackle on international team-mate Geoff Parling during the match against Exeter.

Originally, Sarries prop Richard Barrington received a red card for his part in the tackle.

However, an RFU disciplinary panel found that ref Ian Tempest had punished the wrong individual. You can see the tackle in question here and make up your own mind.

‘No massive change’

Leading international referee Wayne Barnes told BBC 5 Live recently that the laws themselves have not changed, only how officials are being told to interpret them.

Barnes insisted: “[There’s been] no massive chance, we’ve carried on doing what we’ve done for a while now.”

He admitted mistakes would be made but insisted that his fellow refs would learn from them.

But what do people involved in grass-roots rugby union think of the situation?

I visited my local team, Esher RFC, to watch them play against Fylde, and talked to spectators about the high-tackle controversy.

Overall, there was general support for the ‘new’ laws and a recognition that something needed to be done.

‘Protection needed’

James Sharman, a former Surrey county youth player, said a more rigorous approach to high tackling is the best way forward.

“It’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us”

“Having looked at the [injury] statistics, it was evident that it was only going to end up this way,” he said.

“These players are putting their bodies on the line week in, week out. They need modernised ways to protect them.”

Joel Keefe, who plays at amateur level, said the changes have been made at the right time.

“Being someone that plays rugby, it’s good to see that these laws are being put forward to help protect us,” he said.

“Now all that needs to happen is to make sure that the referees judge their decisions diligently and correctly. The worst thing that could happen is if the rules were made a mockery.”

Committed

Clearly, this fresh interpretation of rules around high tackles is going to take some time to bed in.

With the 2017 Six Nations just around the corner, and the British & Irish Lions touring New Zealand in the summer, all eyes will now turn to the international game to see how the laws are enforced at the very highest level.

There’s bound to more controversy along the way.

But ultimately, it is good to see rugby union’s governing bodies demonstrating that they are committed to protecting the players who week in, week out put their bodies on the line for club and country.

Is it time for captain Cook to go?

He is England’s most capped player, their highest-ever scorer, longest-serving Test captain, and is a double Ashes-winning skipper.

But all good things must come to an end, and Alastair Cook’s leadership of England’s Test team looks set to end ahead of the summer.

“Captaincy always brings pressure… when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you”

After this winter’s tour struggles in Bangladesh and India, is the time right for the Essex man to step down?

Joe Root, the current vice-captain of the Test side and Cook’s most likely successor, has loyally expressed his desire for him to remain as skipper.

“I do think he’ll make a decision in the best interests of the team, and in my opinion it would be great if he did stay on and lead it forward. I think he’s got a lot to offer.

“Regardless of what decision he makes – whether he’s captain or not – he will continue to be a massive leader and a focal part of this team moving forward.”

Pressure

Former Ashes-winning England captain Michael Vaughan does, however, expect Cook to resign. He told BBC Sport: “His body language over the last three matches [Against India, all ending in defeat]… he looks like he might be thinking of calling it a day.”

Cook without a doubt is one of England’s greatest cricketers, having amassed over 11,000 Test runs. His average as captain in Test cricket is an impressive 47.84, but his recent form in the series in Bangladesh and India has dented that.

Cook’s top score in the series in India, at Rajkot in November, was 130. One century in your last 14 innings is not good enough.

Captaincy always brings pressure. You are expected to thrive in every match but when things do not go your way, instantly questions will be asked of you.

Nothing left to prove?

One example would be Angelo Mathews being captain of the Sri Lankan team. In Test cricket, Mathews’s average has sky-rocketed to 50.94 as captain when critics have been on his back for not scoring runs.

“The pressure onSangakkara was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team”

This shows that Mathews has the ability to handle pressure as captain and continue to score runs and produce hundreds.

This situation on the England Test captaincy is similar to when MS Dhoni gave up the leading India during their Test series against Australia in 2014, with Virat Kohli succeeding him.

After a stellar career at Test level, Dhoni probably felt he had nothing left to prove, and the negative of the job had begun to outweigh the positives.

Cook won’t want to step down after a bad winter for England, but he’s achieved so much and has cemented his place in England’s cricket history.

Match-winning performances

Of course, no-one is suggesting Cook should actually stop playing for England as well. As Root says, he still has a lot to offer, and with the pressures and responsibilities of the captaincy removed, he can just focus on his batting.

Cook’s best Test innings came pre-captaincy in 2011 against India when he scored a mammoth 294. Giving up being skipper has benefited other players, including Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara.

In 15 matches as Test captain, Sangakkara scored seven Test hundreds with one double century. Pretty good, but after he gave up the captaincy in 2011, he became a run machine that could not be stopped.

He scored another 13 hundreds, with three double centuries and one triple ton between June 2011 and August 2015.

The pressure was lifted and he was freed up to focus on delivering match-winning performances for his team.

Inspiring young players

Another reason why Cook should give up the captaincy but remain in the side is because it will benefit up-and-coming Test players, with his experience helping inspire the likes of Haseeb Hameed.

“Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook”

The possibility of him giving up Test cricket completely can’t be totally ruled out, and it would allow younger players a chance to get into the side.

Personally, I think England should want to keep Cook in the Test side, freed from the stresses and strains of the captaincy.

Less pressure will be on him, he can focus on his main strength which is his batting, whilst also helping younger players who are finding their feet at Test level.

But Root will surely become England’s captain and has the potential to lead them to even greater heights than Cook.

George Ford celebrates with passion after scoring a try against the Springboks. (Credit: Laurence Griffiths)

England look to build on win over Boks

Last weekend saw England emerge 37-21 winners over a slightly lackadaisical South Africa side.

They know they could have performed better, but let’s not take that away from the result. England were determined to dominate, and they did.

It was the first time England had beaten the Springboks in over a decade. The list below shows the past 10 results between the sides before Saturday’s clash.

  • Nov 2014: England 28-31 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2012: England 15-16 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 14-14 England, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 36-27 England, Ellis Park
  • Jun 2012: South Africa 22-17 England, Kings Park
  • Nov 2010: England 11-21 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Nov 2008: England 6-42 South Africa, Twickenham
  • Oct 2007: England 6-15 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Sep 2007: England 0-36 South Africa, Stade de France
  • Jun 2007: South Africa 55-22 England, Loftus

England were slow to get out of the blocks, going 0-6 down within the first 10 minutes. However a swift and free-flowing counter-attack allowed Jonny May to do what he does best and finish in the corner.

From then on, England kicked on and were superior to the Springboks in nearly every aspect – not something which is normally seen in games between northern and southern hemisphere sides.

Key stats

In terms of attacking statistics, England made 451 metres throughout the match, compared to the Springboks 395m. England also made nine clean breaks, to South Africa’s four, the pick of the bunch being Ben Youngs’ dummy passes to set up both George Ford and Owen Farrell.

England also displayed a great defensive mindset; something that head coach Eddie Jones is keen to implement throughout the XV, the most important thing being that you have to put your body on the line for the team.

A key statistic in this respect was England’s nine turnovers at the breakdown compared to South Africa’s four. Watching the game, you could see that the team in white would do everything and anything to get the ball back.

 Discipline

However, the only visible downside to England’s game was the penalty count they racked up, conceding 11 in total. It’s something that Jones evidently wasn’t pleased about, as shown by his post-match comment that England can get a lot better.

Skipper Dylan Hartley backed up the Aussie, saying: “There’s plenty to work on, so that keeps us grounded. We conceded six penalties in the opening 20 minutes and that isn’t good enough.”

Man of the match

The standout performer was Youngs; he was everywhere he could possibly be on the pitch and had the vision to spot the break in the line not once, but twice to set up Ford and Farrell.

 A new week, a new challenge

This weekend brings a new challenge in the form of Fiji, regular so-called whipping boys who will be wanting to make an impression in front of 80,000 fans at Twickenham on Saturday.

 Draining the talent pool

One of the many reasons that Fiji, Tonga and Samoa haven’t managed to excel as much as they would have wanted is that their talented pool of players is often raided by other rugby nations.Mike Brown in action during the last clash between the teams in 2015. (Credit: Rugby News)

Take Manu Tuilagi; when fully fit and on the top of his game, he is unstoppable, showing this against New Zealand a couple of years ago.

Although he and a few of his brothers had dual nationality, playing for England would be a much more lucrative opportunity than a Pacific Island team.

To put into perspective why many of these players adopt other nations over Fiji for example, just look at how much players are getting paid for this match in the Autumn internationals series.

Nathan Hughes, who was actually born in Fiji, will take home £22,000 playing for England, while his former countrymen receive just £400 each.

 Olympic glory

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Fijians.Fiji celebrating with their Olympic gold medals (Credit: Associated Press)

They have had something to be ecstatic about this year, winning their first-ever Olympic medal – gold in the rugby sevens tournament, beating Great Britain in the process.

It wasn’t a tight game in the slightest, with Fiji trouncing GB 43-7 in the final in Rio.

Although sevens is a very different game, Jones will be wary as to what could potentially unfold over 80 minutes.

Fiji’s danger men

Centre Vereniki Goneva should be well known to England fans, having played for Leicester Tigers between 2012 and 2016and scoring 205 points in the process.

In the 2015–16 European Rugby Champions Cup, he scored a try in every game finishing with six in five matches in the knockout rounds, making him the competition’s joint top try-scorer alongside Thomas Waldrom.

Lock Leone Nakawara currently plays for Racing 92 in France, and was one of the players who won an Olympic sevens medal at Rio 2016, scoring a try in the final in a one-sided 43-7 victory over Great Britain.

During his time at Glasgow Warriors, Nakarawa was named man of the match for in the 2015 Pro12 Grand Final in Belfast. He had the most offloads in the 2014–15 European Rugby Champions Cup with 25.

Fly-half Ben Volavola is, perhaps surprisingly, the youngest player in the current squad at 25. He signed for the Crusaders in the 2016 Super Rugby season to replace a number 10 exodus at the New Zealand club, with Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor having moved to play their rugby in Europe.

During his three-year stint at the Southern Districts side, he racked up 248 points in 36 appearances.

Overall record 

In the six matches the teams have played against each other, England have never lost to Fiji, racking up 245 points to their 94. The largest win came in 2012 when England demolished them 54-12.

Jones knows all about upsets though, pulling off arguably the biggest one in international rugby history when his Japan team beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup.

A repeat is unlikely on Saturday, but Jones is too wily and experienced a coach to take anything for granted.

Jones eyes more England progress

This time last year, Eddie Jones had just done the unthinkable. He had led a cast of nobodies (no disrespect intended to Japan) to victory over South Africa in the World Cup – arguably the biggest shock in rugby union’s history.

Japan celebrating a momentous win over South Africa. (Credit: Gallo Images)
Japan celebrate their win over South Africa (Credit: Gallo Images)

Now he finds himself with the best winning percentage as an England head coach since Sir Clive Woodward, with a 100% record.

Who would have thought England, a team who capitulated as World Cup hosts under Stuart Lancaster, would begin a new era under Jones with nine wins out of nine.

It is time for England fans to truly believe something big is happening.

With England still the only Northern Hemisphere team to have won the World Cup, beating Australia in their own backyard in 2003, many thought that finest hour was unrepeatable.

Fair enough, that they made the final in France 2007, but they were humbled by Saturday’s opponents South Africa. However, this clash has a build-up that’s completely different to that game nine years ago.

Time to take advantage

England come into this game looking like one of the best teams in the world right now.

Ireland’s sensational 40-29 win over New Zealand in Chicago last weekend showed the All Blacks do actually have some weaknesses, and it’s time for England to take advantage.

England go into the autumn internationals ranked the second-best team in the world, and it is up to them to make the biggest statement possible.

This will be one of Eddie Jones’ biggest tests.

The build-up to these matches has certainly been a tough one, and England’s summer whitewashing of Australia down under has created great expectations.

Injury crisis

Jones will be without Manu Tuilagi, James Haskell, Sam Jones and Anthony Watson – all out of the picture with long-term injuries.

Let’s also not forget that player of the year last year, Maro Itoje is out too, as are Jack Nowell and George Kruis. It’s nothing short of an injury crisis, for sure.Itoje & Jones chatting at an England camp. (Credit: PA)

Although England have amazing depth in many positions, there is no denying that the players out injured would have had a key role this autumn. Watson, for one, has scored 70 points in 24 games.

Jones has had to rethink his strategy, drafting in Wasps’ Elliot Daly for his full Test debut at outside centre, Jonathan Joseph being dropped in the process. This is a clear statement from Jones, who who has previously said he will do what is necessary to get the win.

Ideology

Jones has also said in the buildup to Saturday’s Twickenham clash: “I told the players…. If you are not physical you need to play volleyball – rugby is a physical sport.”

It’s clear to see what Jones expects from his players in the face of the famed brute force of the Springboks.

Mako Vunipola has voiced the ideology that Jones has enforced, saying: “The biggest message is not being happy with where we are at the moment, we have to keep improving every time we go out on the pitch. We want to improve every day.”

This just goes to show how much has happened with the team since the dreadful World Cup campaign just over a year ago.

This is a different England side that are not afraid to be physical, who want to be the best, and know they can achieve their aim.

Jones has instantly made his mark, bringing in experienced faces to his coaching staff, something that made a big story under Lancaster’s reign, for the wrong reasons.

He has had short-term input for his backs from Australian legend Glen Ella, George Smith has been helping out the back rows, and the fly-halves from England legend Jonny Wilkinson.

Quality

The effect that both Jones’ strengthening of the England team, and the success of clubs such as Saracens, has seen an amazing improvement.

Take into account that only two English players were shortlisted for the IRB’s World Rugby Player of the year in the past 12 years; this year there are three alone.

“With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer”

Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have all been nominated, following their stellar performances at international and club level.

The matches against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia are the perfect opportunity for England to show what they are really about, that the Jones honeymoon isn’t over just yet.

With South Africa in a fragile state of mind, England can get off to a flyer.

Many fans will be licking their lips at this clash, and it’s clear that England fans finally have something to smile about.

Depending on the outcome of these matches and next year’s Six Nations, people will be starting to ask whether 2019, when Japan host the World Cup, could be England’s year.

But let it sink in that when that World Cup comes around, it will have been 16 years since we triumphed over Australia.

 

Give England job to the ‘Anti-Sam’

The ever-increasing probability of Gareth Southgate’s promotion to permanent England manager faces its final obstacle when Scotland visit Wembley.

As Matt Law reported earlier this week, barring a first defeat to the ‘auld enemy’ since 1999, The FA plans to formally appoint Southgate after the latest international break concludes with England’s friendly against Spain.

southgate-training
Southgate watches over England training at St. George’s Park. Pic. The Guardian.

The former central defender’s elevation has been met with scoffs and wry smiles alike throughout certain areas of the media.

Likewise, England supporters have been quick to display their lack of faith, through radio phone-ins, in the 46-year-old’s character.

Yet for every claim of Southgate serving only as an FA puppet, put in place as a PR move to calm the choppy waters created by Sam Allardyce’s dismissal, the former Middlesbrough manager can prove otherwise.

Southgate’s public persona is different to that of other managers.

His measured approach to reporter’s questions and intelligent manner whilst working as a pundit, breaks the mold of bashful characters such as Allardyce. In this respect Southgate is the Anti-Sam.

Intelligence within football has often been misconstrued as softness. Someone who dances to their own beat and displays a hint of quirkiness will, wrongly, raise eyebrows.

Strength of mind

Yet no player can survive in professional football having played upwards of 500 senior games, by being a soft touch. This insinuation about the former Crystal Palace defender simply isn’t true.

His decision to drop (or protect) captain Wayne Rooney for the World Cup qualifier in Slovenia, served to confirm Southgate’s strength of mind.

Steve McClaren had attempted the same tactic in 2006, by not picking David Beckham in his first squad as England manager. But the current England manager’s decision to address the media head on, sitting alongside Rooney, also demonstrated class and consideration for his players’ state of mind.

Modern players at the highest level will respond positively to a manager who shows they care about them, and Southgate clearly understands this. Rooney, who has many years of big-game experience, has been assured of his starting place against the Scots, another indication of his manager’s ability to ‘know his players’.

southgate-rooney
Wayne Rooney will start tonight’s game, Southgate has confirmed. Pic. The Guardian.

Gaining such knowledge around the mindset of young people, some of who are 20 years his junior, comes as a bi-product of years of experience within The FA’s infrastructure.

Appointed as Head of Elite Development in 2011, the man who represented his country 57 times would later become England Under 21s manager in 2013.

Southgate’s reign saw the development and progression of players such as John Stones, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane into the full squad, as well as a tournament victory in Toulon during the summer; the first for 22 years.

Euro 2016 proved that England are a long way from winning a major tournament.

The FA’s mission of reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2020, followed by the aim of becoming World Champions in 2022 appeared in tatters as Roy Hodgson’s team lay dejected amongst the Viking-clapping Icelandic team.

But the mission still has six years until completion, so why stop now? And who better to take the reigns than someone who understands from top to bottom, exactly what the aim is and the process in place to achieve it.

A long list of clubs and national federations have successfully promoted from within in recent years, creating a pathway for former players to learn their trade within age-group football, before stepping into first-team management.

That is by no means to suggest that herein lays the magic formula to success; there are many variables that determine the outcome of any appointment.

But as an intelligent, media-savvy, strong-minded and experienced coach with a working knowledge of young players, England should look no further than Southgate.