June International Tours

England’s not so green and pleasant land

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Aghast at England’s shambolic preparations for the forthcoming tour of South Africa, James Griffith looks to the future – and beseeches Twickenham to do the same…

As Brian Ashton sifts over the ashes and rubble of the season to find bodies even marginally capable of donning a white shirt in South Africa later this month, he might be forgiven for reflecting that for all Clive Woodward’s undoubted commercial acumen, the Knighted One failed palpably to embrace the government’s message of Sustainable Business Practice.

Club England has stumbled from crisis to crisis from the very moment Australian Prime Minister John Howard attempted to garrotte Dorian West with a medal ribbon in Sydney (thus starting a trend that has gone on to feature slightly more prominently in this year’s cricket World Cup ).

For some bizarre reason, that night of November 2003 was a full stop in English rugby – a train hitting the buffers, job done.

Nobody had bothered to think past that pinnacle of achievement, and more importantly, nobody had bothered to understand the need for a sustainable game. It was merely assumed that once England had won the World Cup, everything else would simply fall into place.

The simple matter of facts were that the players’ bodies never recovered from a totally unsustainable level of fitness and workload, the development of younger players was secondary to the winning of the RWC the domestic system was not designed to run in parallel with a packed international season.

Out of those who finished the final, not one player has ever kicked on and delivered anything near the standards of those heady days.

The moment Woodward sat down with Francis Baron and realised that access to his players would be reduced, his backroom staff pruned and his budgets decimated, he knew that the empire he had created had become totally unsustainable, and, in the style of Adam Gilchrist, wisely chose to walk.

Looking at the run up to RWC 2007, Ashton’s current woes would not be lost on a skipper of a club’s 5th XV trying to arrange an Easter tour to Caerphilly. It certainly shouldn’t be the lot of an international coach embarking on an excursion to the high veldt.

Woodward had every single player he needed fit and available, and conditioned like Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, whereas this year one wonders if Chris Jones’s recent automotive acquisition of a Renault Espace is to ensure his selection, just in case they need to get 7 players to the airport in time to catch the flight.

Ashton is shorn of probably 30 players (a full squad) through unavailability and injury, and many of those selected to tour will have spent more time with their dad watching at Twickenham than actually training or playing there.

Selection will not be made on fitness and form, rather from those who can walk unaided and those that might be able to get to the ground on time. With physio rooms across the country resembling the set of MASH it appears to be no coincidence that England’s national flag features a red cross.

Woodward once said the hardest telephone call he ever had to make was to inform Graham Rowntree he’d been omitted from the final team selection. Ashton’s squad situation is so unclear and difficult to define that you could be forgiven for wondering if the ongoing core sponsorship deal with O2 has been renewed just to assist in the management of Ashton’s SIM card address book.

Whilst Woodward’s attention to detail and strategic planning was nothing short of epic – with dietary plans, personal training plans and eye movement technology – Ashton’s eye reflex training consists more of carrying photos of the players he’s picked and trying to remember both their first names and, on a good day, the positions they play in.

Indeed, the time honoured tradition of embroidering each players’ initials on their team training kit seems not so much for th

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