Source: RFU Collection via Getty Images

Review into England’s World Cup performance not to be published

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This secrecy is perfectly understandable, since everyone concerned in it is given the chance to say what they really think about things. That is the only sensible way to discover the truth.

The RFU review divides into two: a technical review to be published this month; and a second ‘wider management review’ to get under way next month.

All we, the public, do know at the moment is that the review panel is led by Conor O’Shea, the RFU’s Director of Performance, and contains some members of the committee that decided to sack Eddie Jones. All anonymous, of course.

The only people in the direct firing-line are the three coaches, Simon Middleton (head coach), backs and defence coach Scott Bemand (both since 2015) and Louis Deacon (forwards coach). All are contracted till next June.

The previous person in O’Shea’s shoes was Nicky Ponsford, who was seconded to World Rugby for two years, specifically to help with arrangements for the RWC. It is not yet known whether she will resume her post, but in the meantime O’Shea has effectively been covering two roles, for the men’s and women’s teams.

Losing that final at Eden Park came as a painful surprise to everyone involved, and that includes all the many fans across the country and beyond.

Middleton had made no bones about the issue: it was win or …? And the question-mark is what the panel has to decide. Once again, the lack of identities only adds to the uncertainty about the final outcome.

The RWC winners themselves, the Black Ferns, have known decisions taken above their heads by a board consisting overwhelmingly of men. We can only hope that the RFU is not following the same pattern. There is at least one woman in a high position at Twickenham, who understands the tangled nature of the issues involved.

The recent history of England women’s rugby tells an inconsistent story. Three of the last four RWC finals have been lost (all to NZ of course). After the 2014 win (not against NZ) Gary Street, the much respected head coach, was shown the door, though no explanations have ever been disclosed. The RFU does not believe in the open society.

After the 2017 loss in Belfast Middleton retained his position. Indeed, since then the only changes in the triumvirate have involved the forwards coach (Matt Ferguson, Richard Blaze, Mark Luffman and most recently Louis Deacon). Deacon can be well pleased with his performance: the Red Rose pack carried all before them.

Does staffing change automatically bring improvement? Rarely. It did triumphantly with the appointment of Wayne Smith for the Black Ferns, but it was an admission of the dire straits the NZR had led the women’s game into that they needed to turn to a former All Blacks coach in his mid-60s to rescue a parlous position.

His performance makes us rethink long-held beliefs about coaching. He proved it is possible to turn a team suffering from general neglect and a series of big defeats into world-beaters inside a year. But he was dealing with a nation and a team all too used to victory.

We will never know how many of the Red Roses who made the trip to Aotearoa will have wanted to keep Middleton in office. Nor, more pertinently, the Red Roses who had hopes of taking part but were excluded.

Nor are we likely to find out how the voting was conducted. We can only hope that the RFU will reveal the reasoning behind its verdict, as far as personal confidences allow.

An extra obstacle lies in the panel’s path. If they do decide on a change of cast, the new incumbent(s) will have minimal time before a new Red Roses squad takes the field against Scotland on March 25th.

Even Wayne Smith might baulk at that challenge.

If the Red Roses were supposed to be odds-on favourites in 2022 (1 / 2 according to some bookmakers!), what on earth will be the expectations when sixteen nations gather in England in three years time? A full house at HQ (?), and yet another loss to you know who. It doesn’t bear thinking about.