RFU determined to maintain high standards
September 24, 2009
RFU chief executive Francis Baron must ensure standards are high at all levels of the game © Getty Images
It has been a busy time at England's HQ of late with the launch of the 'This is Rugby' campaign and the publication of the Rugby Football Union's latest strategic plan.
And there is more to come next week with the initial findings of the Image of the Game task force that was mobilised in response to the fake-blood and drugs-related drama of the summer.
English rugby's governing body must be praised for their efforts to protect the values of the sport in this country but their latest ambitious strategy for the national side will do little to improve England's reputation amongst opposing fans as cocksure and over-rated.
The RFU have set England the target of winning two Rugby World Cups and four Six Nations Championships in the next eight years but their goals do not stop there. They have also set a minimum requirement of reaching the semi-finals of both Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand and the same when the sport's global showpiece comes to England's shores in 2015. In addition, the document demands that at least two of the team's victories in the Six Nations be Grand Slams.
But the RFU's testing targets do not end there with England manager Martin Johnson and his side under pressure to raise their game against southern hemisphere opposition. The strategic plan requires that England win two out of every three games against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and in doing so raise their overall win ratio from 70-80%.
Johnson may have had some input into the overall strategy but it is the union's powerbrokers that have set the bar in terms of performance and there seems little room for error. "Why not go the full hog and say you're going to win everything and be done with it?" asked one bemused fan on the Scrum Forum and many would tend to agree.
But haven't we been here before some of you may ask? Well yes. The RFU set some equally lofty goals back in 2001. That tome set England the target of winning the Six Nations title six times in an eight-year period and indicated that four needed to be Grand Slams. However, the main target was Rugby World Cup 2007 in France where England were ordered to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
As most fans will know, Clive Woodward's side won rugby's showpiece event four years ahead of schedule but two victories in the Six Nations and just one Grand Slam saw England come up short elsewhere. Of note is the fact that the 2001 plan also proposed the re-development of Twickenham's south stand. The magnificent stadium in south west London is now a testament to the Union's foresight and their financial strength.
In this professional age, the RFU are not alone in trying to define their future. Most recently the Irish Rugby Union laid out how they intend to assert themselves on the global and domestic stage.
The IRFU demanded the national side won a Six Nations title between 2008 and 2012 and secured at least a semi-final berth at RWC'11. Within the provincial sphere, they targeted a Heineken Cup victory and two Magners League titles.
Little did they know that less than a year after publishing the document Ireland would not have only won the Six Nations and secured a long-awaited Grand Slam but also celebrated a Heineken Cup win for Leinster and a Magners League triumph for Munster. Impressive stuff.
The RFU are right to set goals - no forward-thinking organisation, including ESPN, would be without them in this day and age. And perhaps given the afore mentioned financial strength of the union and its playing structure they should be aiming high but back-to-back Rugby World Cup victories? Is that not a little insulting to the rest of the world? Surely these goals should be attainable? The RFU would obviously argue they are but it appears Johnson and co are doomed to fail at least to a certain degree.
Let us not forget that England are currently 7th in the International Rugby Boards Rankings, but as I understand they do not warrant a mention in the plan which offers an indication as to their feelings about the rating system.
The RFU obviously see success as the key to a long and fruitful future for the game in England. But it would appear that the RFU has been a victim of its own success in the professional era and latterly in the wake of the 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph. Concerns that standards of behaviour were slipping in the game have been attributed to the influx of new people to the sport be they players, parents or fans and the RFU took the unprecedented step to address the issue. Rowdy crowds at elite matches, disrespecting of officials and over-bearing parents in mini-rugby were just three issues that set the alarm bells ringing at Rugby House.
The core values the RFU have since identified and vowed to uphold - Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship - are coming to a beer mat (and various other promotional material) near you. They were heralded by the RFU as "five maxims by which to live, work and play by" but their primary concern is the sport. The principles are well known to those within the game but sadly they can no longer be taken for granted.
This is where the RFU must ensure the highest standards - not the lush turf of Twickenham. This battle is more important than any showdown with the All Blacks, or Wales - even if it happens to be for the sport's biggest prize.