LONDON, ENGLAND – For the past month we’ve been checking in on the state of the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby unions – a year ahead of the World Cup. To see the previous reviews click the following: Italy, Scotland, France and Wales. This week sees England Rugby is under the spotlight, following their summer tour to New Zealand.
While the Aviva Premiership lacks the filthy lucre of France’s Top 14, it is in healthy shape, financially and competitively. Crowds continue to rise, and the advent of a “Summer of Sevens” served to keep rugby in the public eye late in a World Cup summer. Most importantly for the national team setup, the Premiership continues to retain and develop English talent, with a relatively healthy balance between the league’s “haves” and “have nots.”
Not all is sunshine and daisies in England, however. There has been no civil war, as occurred in Wales, but there are rumblings of discontent throughout the league. The clubs are expected to lose a total of 15 million pounds thanks to the league wide stoppage imposed by the World Cup, with Premiership clubs expected to cease operations for five months. While the IRB and RFU agreed that no elite club rugby would be played during the world cup, Premiership clubs were not technically part of the agreement, and the RFU has only offered 6 million pounds in compensation. These are the types of fissures which have the potential to develop into lasting resentment, a disastrous situation for the harmonious relationship between the national side and domestic competition.
The Premiership is probably going to have to raise the salary cap at some point in the near future, despite having managed to retain the vast majority of players in serious contention for England spots. Unlike the Pro12, clubs compete on relatively even financial footing, with a few notable exceptions. Trying to eliminate those exceptions is a futile enterprise while running a professional sports league in 2014. For the moment, English club rugby is in a very healthy position. Nobody will argue that it offers a product on the level of Super Rugby, but the Premiership offers an attractive, competitive product that serves the needs of the national team, occupying a uniquely strong position in the Northern Hemisphere.
Much has been written about how Stuart Lancaster has transformed England’s working environment and fortunes. It is impossible to overstate how broken the 2011 side was, in terms of mentality and makeup. Given temporary charge of the team, Lancaster immediately began the work of reforming the team during the 2012 Six Nations, leading to an unexpected second place finish. Since that time, competition for places in the side have been fierce, and Lancaster has consciously developed depth in all areas of the team. There have been questions about his tactical selections, with a number of curious substitutions marring past internationals. Lancaster delegates much responsibility to his lieutenants, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, a healthy setup that addresses some of Lancaster’s percieved weaknesses. Out of all the Six Nations sides, England probably have the most stable setup. It is easy to speculate that England’s players may eventually tire of Lancaster’s management, as all players tire with static managerial situations, but it is hard to imagine the stolid Lancaster repeating Clive Woodward’s “me first” antics.
The national side runs two deep at most positions, though the wings have been alarmingly injury riddled over the past two years. Christian Wade was tipped as England’s winger of the future, but an injury wiped out his entire 2013-14 season. He will hope to round into form in time for the World Cup, along with Marland Yarde, who was hugely impressive in New Zealand. After rising from the dead, Chris Ashton will be sent to sleep with the fishes once more following an embarrassing series of displays over the summer. The forward pack will only be strengthened by the return of Dan Cole, while the competition for positions in the second row is the most vicious in world rugby. Boasting Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling, and Joe Launchbury, Lancaster has a trio of outstanding locks. Billy Vunipola will frighten any team lining up against the England scrum, while Danny Care has regained his spark. The 2014 Aviva Premiership season will go a long way towards determining places in the World Cup side, and some top quality players are bound to be disappointed on squad announcement day.
England are legitimate contenders for the title in 2015, and anything short of a victory will come as a disappointment. Defeat to New Zealand in the final remains the most likely option, but English fans will enter the fall entertaining dreams of the Webb Ellis Cup.