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England's 'just enough' won't be enough at the World Cup

Simon BarnesDecember 1, 2014
England celebrate a pack-led try against Australia - a score typical of the team's commitment, endeavour and lack of panache © Getty Images

So the England rugby team did just enough. No surprise there. They always do. They are the great just-enoughers of world sport: never quite doing badly enough to make you give up on them, never quite doing well enough to make you relish them.

They beat Australia over the weekend, doing just enough to win, and in the course of doing so they did just enough to make their autumn campaign respectable. And so they have done enough - just - to make people believe that they are still under control as they move towards the World Cup that stands just 10 months away.

Yes, a thoroughly decent performance by a thoroughly decent team made up of a bunch of thoroughly decent blokes and managed by a man of self-evident and perhaps exceptional decency. You want them to do well for that reason alone. You feel that decency in sport really should be rewarded by exceptional performance.

Assessing the autumn

Julian Savea helped the All Blacks defeat Wales and round out an undefeated autumn tour © Getty Images
  • An unbeaten New Zealand, an impressive Ireland and the Wallabies in crisis - Tom Hamilton weighs up the key learnings from the autumn internationals and considers what the leading nations need to do ahead of next year's World Cup in Monday Maul
  • Click here to read the full column

Lancaster's vision of the England team seems to be based on moral as much as sporting priorities. It seems to be a team put together in the belief that good sport is the logical outcome of a certain kind of decency. And perhaps even vice versa.

Lancaster took over a team that had lost its moral centre. The fall-out from the disastrous World Cup campaign of 2011 was poisonous. One scandal followed another: dwarf-tossing was just the start of it. A trust-the-players ethos had become an indulge-the-players free-for-all, marked by self-regard and a sense of entitlement, leading logically enough to a series of woeful performances on the pitch.

England had become a travesty of an elite sporting team of the modern age: plied with resources, set about with a million different kinds of coaches, suffused with the belief that sport was easy and that they were fairly seriously wonderful human beings whom the world rightly showered with favours.

Lancaster's triumph was to destroy that culture at a stroke. He did it basically with one decision: he cancelled the warm-weather training trip to the Canaries and instead held a camp in Leeds. That'll learn 'em. It did, too. Since then Lancaster has strived to establish a feeling of Englishness: a rooted team that espouses and exemplifies rooted English virtues.

And such virtues were clearly on show in England's last match against Australia, and for that matter, in their losing run against New Zealand and South Africa: hard work, togetherness, unselfishness, power and duty among the forwards, strong defence and total absence of flash among the backs.

Is that all you've got?

That was the notorious headline that greeted the England rugby team in Australia during the 2003 World Cup. It was accompanied by a picture of the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. So the idea of England as a team with certain limitations goes way back. With the current bunch, the answer to the question in the headline seems to be: what more could anyone possibly want?

England take their tone from the earnest, worthy and thoroughly admirable captain, Chris Robshaw. He is a man of limited scope, limited talent and limited ambition: and he has been good enough in recent weeks to make these limitations into positive virtues. You feel that you're better off with Robshaw's limitations than you would be with anyone else's genius. Plain, unvarnished, non-fancy, humble, full of hard work, self-abnegation and always aware that there are larger things than self and glory: who could possibly argue with such an attitude?

And because of this, no one has wanted to be too hard on the England team since Lancaster took it over. The critics have held off. It seems that people really want this serious, committed and moral vision of the England rugby team - of sport, of all England - to work. So the team has been given a gentle ride: work in progress, building for the World Cup, judge them when their four years are up.

Lancaster cancelled the warm-weather training trip to the Canaries and instead held a camp in Leeds. That'll learn 'em. It did, too

I respect all that conspicuous virtue: who could not? But I'm homesick for the devil.

It's a myth that England's World Cup-winning side of 2003 were built to the same pattern. Sure, they were plain enough in most aspects, and attempted - more or less successfully - to elevate corporate competence to the level of brilliance. And sure, they ground out penalties and then got Jonny to kick them. But they also had devil.

Mostly they had this extraordinary quality in the feet of Jason Robinson, the fullback from rugby league who was the most elusive runner in world rugby. His brilliance turned the course of the tight quarter-final against Wales and of the final itself, against Australia. No one could read what he would do: he had pace, wit and invention.

No coach can create talent like that, but all great coaches create a climate in which such talent can flourish. Clive Woodward did it with Robinson. Alex Ferguson did it with Eric Cantona and later with Cristiano Ronaldo. Duncan Fletcher and Andy Flower did it with Kevin Pietersen.

These relationships were not always smooth, or even amicable. But the powerful and difficult personalities involved were, they reasoned, worth the trouble: not just for what they could do themselves, but for what they brought into the team.

It's hard to see such personalities thriving under Lancaster. As a result, you always know what's coming. That's as true for opposing players as it is for spectators. They know how to defend against England and they know how to attack them. England supporters know that in victory and in defeat the team will do their damnedest, and afterwards they will be as full of tough honesty as when they started.

So on they go towards the Six Nations tournament in the New Year, and I think I know what they will do in the course of it. Just enough. But soon that World Cup will come along: and on home soil, too. It's the opportunity of a generation. And that's when just enough will suddenly become a desperate falling short.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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