Stuart Lancaster faces an anxious wait after England’s catastrophic failure in their own Rugby World Cup. Watching England be completely outclassed by Australia means intense pain now but also major concerns looking forward.
Lancaster’s good-guy persona has won him time and faith during previous lows but this is on another scale – the nightmare everyone in England has feared since December 2012 when the draw for the pools was made.
Hearing both coach and captain lament that they have let their country down is no surprise, the go-to apology in sport, but in this case it was emotional, sincere. England have never lacked effort, but there was a gulf in class on the field.
Last week’s loss to Wales was harrowing but it was clear to see where England went wrong, losing their nerve when the game was in their hands.
This was different. Inevitable; based on the twitchy atmosphere on the trains and walk to Twickenham as supporters convinced themselves to go with the heart over the head. Travelling home they sunk into that familiar slump that comes from English sporting failure, ready to accept the harsh truths.
England had no answer to David Pocock and as soon as they broke the Wallabies defensive line they were blunt, as the ideas ran out.
They were dominated at the scrum, supposedly England’s safety net. Dominated at the breakdown, where even Steffon Armitage – remember him – would have struggled to match Pocock’s brilliance. Second best, everywhere you looked. Being down only 20-13 in the final quarter came as a shock.
There was some bad luck in the loss of Jonny May at half-time, forcing Jonathan Joseph out wide when the ball needed to be in his hands as much as possible, but it was magnified by the selection of Sam Burgess on the bench over any back three cover, ideally Jack Nowell.
Lancaster is a good coach, but baffling selections have hindered his time in charge of England, peaking with the constant chopping-and-changing of midfield combinations in a desperate search for the right answer.
Saturday was the 18th different group of fly-half and centres in four years, a trio who have won plenty of caps since Lancaster took over but had never started together before the biggest games of their lives.
There is talent in this side, especially in the shape of George Ford, Joseph and Anthony Watson to go with Joe Launchbury and Billy and Mako Vunipola up front.
But this was four years too soon for a squad with 24 players featuring in their first Rugby World Cup. Even that mentioned group of players now face questions over whether they are just too raw in terms of Test caps, or simply not good enough.
Every player who featured against Wales and Australia has to face that examination, starting with Chris Robshaw who personifies his team’s hard work yet was outshone by Pocock and Michael Hooper.
The lack of experience and leadership was crystal clear in the way the Wallabies remained patient on attack, waiting for the holes to appear, while England’s backline width disappeared when the ball was frequently slow at the breakdown.
Now the RFU have a choice to make.
Lancaster rightly has been commended for blooding young, exciting talent and changing the image of English rugby off the field.
Keeping him on though until 2019 now would feel like a leap of faith on a coach who has gained painful, invaluable experience but also arguably reached his limit.
His passion and honesty cannot be faulted. But it’s his ability that matters and the last two weeks have exposed England’s lack of killer instinct and nous, which stems from Lancaster himself and his assistant coaches seeming out of their depth. Even Graham Rowntree, the most senior figure in the group, has watched his scrum being demolished.
Keeping Lancaster and bringing in a more senior coach to either assist or take charge is an option that has to be considered.
As he pointed out in Sunday’s debrief, the road to rebuilding England’s squad after so many players over 30 turned out in 2011 was never going to be smooth. The job Lancaster has done working on English rugby’s culture deserves credit, but for now it has been overshadowed.
Winning is what matters most – especially for a nation with the most players and best finances in world rugby. And England have been found wanting. They have failed.