we need to talk about stuart

AS THE RITCHIE REVIEW PREPARES TO SIFT THROUGH THE DEBRIS OF ENGLAND’S WORLD CUP, OPINION IS DIVIDED ON THE FUTURE OF HEAD COACH, STUART LANCASTER. WILL THE ‘IANS’ STAND BY THEIR MAN OR LOOK ELSEWHERE?

I’ve been straw-polling our builders on the subject of the England Review; if you like, the working man’s take on the working party that’s weighing the worth of Stuart Lancaster. Pete and Bill both reckon that he should stay – mind you, Pete’s originally from Leeds and very territorial – but Brian and Sid the Shovel want him gone. ‘Useless so and so,’ said Brian – except he didn’t say ‘so and so’ – all of which left Jamie the Plasterer with the casting vote. He looked puzzled, which in all truthfulness, isn’t his most uncommon expression. ‘What, are England out, then?’ he said. A soggy doughnut bounced off his hard hat and into his cup of tea.

And it is hard hats all round at Twickenham too, not least in the Chief Executive’s office where Ian Ritchie is plumb in the media’s crosshairs given that no one knows where to find Rob Andrew. His crime? Well, most obviously, appointing Stuart Lancaster. But there was also the news conference a few weeks’ back where – firmly but perhaps unwisely – he offered to carry the can should the World Cup campaign go belly-up. And, prior to that, there was his strange Six Nations’ non-sequitur; the quote about yet another second place being ‘not acceptable’ which followed hard on the heels of the six-year contract extensions for the entire coaching team. With the best will in the world, it was a tough line of thinking to follow.

Of course had the England team been carried out on its shield in a heroic, last-gasp, semi-final reverse to New Zealand, none of this would amount to much of a charge sheet. Unfortunately, though, they didn’t which is why we are living in such febrile times. Ian Ritchie’s supporters would doubtless point out that (a) he’s being pilloried for nothing more than his honesty and loyalty and (b) his brief covers considerably more than just the England team. The trouble is not many seem to be listening. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty but had the Chief Executive perhaps built a fire-door between himself and his Head Coach – a Director of Rugby, a Performance Director or some such – then the flames wouldn’t now be licking round his desk. But he didn’t and they are.

By all accounts the five-man Review Panel is very much his party; specifically, his idea, his invitations and his agenda, another reason why he’s become a lightning rod for the disaffected and the damning. Understandably, he wouldn’t have wanted to invite in a bunch of total strangers to sniff the RFU’s dirty laundry but in keeping it very in-house, he’s clearly laid himself wide open to a charge of ‘cosiness’. Ian Watmore’s a chum from England 2015, Ian Metcalfe was Chairman of the team that appointed Ritchie as Chief Executive, Ian McGeechan – like Ritchie – was on the panel that first appointed Lancaster and Ben Kay is the solitary wild card, not only that but he’s the only man at the table who’s not called Ian, which might prove confusing.

And the gripes don’t stop there. Three of the five have no experience of Test rugby – ‘too green’ – Kay is the only man under fifty-seven years of age – ‘too grey’ – and Ian McGeechan’s effectively cleared the defendant already in his column in ‘The Sunday Telegraph’ – ‘too black and white’. Unnamed RFU Councillors have denounced the review as a ‘disgrace’ and a ‘joke’ and the remit – ‘We Need To Talk About Stuart’ – as too narrow. And yes, it is too narrow, but there’s a Six Nations kicking off after Christmas and while an exhaustive, systematic, no-stone-unturned, Ground Zero, root and branch, ‘What-The-Bloody-Hell-Have-We-Been-Doing-For-The-Past-Twelve-Years’ analysis is precisely what’s required, England also need someone to pick a team to play Scotland by the end of January. They can’t exactly send their apologies.

Of course the elephant in the room – or in this case, very much not in the room – is Clive Woodward. Both Will Greenwood and Lawrence Dallaglio have been thumping his drum and, clearly, his insight and expertise could have proved useful to the panel. Who knows? Perhaps he’s already been asked and declined. But if not, it can hardly come as a surprise – even to Woodward himself – that the RFU will have none of him, not given the acrimonious divorce back in 2004. Trust me, the brawl of a news conference that marked his passing still ranks as one of the most electric pieces of theatre since Anthony Sher’s mesmeric ‘bottled spider’ performance in the RSC’s Richard III at Stratford more than thirty years ago. Yes, you could argue that after eleven years, an olive branch could have been offered but even if it’d been accepted, it’d have been wise not to leave it lying about while the panel was in session: hefty things olive branches.

So, as we understand it, England players, coaches and support staff will all get a chance to be heard in The Review, as will Premiership Directors of Rugby and others with an ‘external perspective’. (I’m not sure to whom this refers. Do you have an external perspective? You do? Then why don’t you drop Ian a line?) And how will this work? Will the witnesses appear in person or on paper? Will the panel make a simple recommendation on Stuart Lancaster or, if they opt to make changes, do they have the powers to directly recommend a successor? What if the Management Board declines to accept the panel’s findings? Answers come there none. The only formula we can rely on is that 4(Ian) + Ben equals a lengthy report to the Management Board by the Ides of November and that none of the working out will ever see the light of day.

It’s all so very, well, so very RFU but then, where’s the surprise in that? Ritchie is hardly Robespierre, is he? And you wouldn’t need to be an eminent scholar of either revolutions or rugby to spot the difference between the RFU Management Board and the Committee of Public Safety, at least not since Martyn Thomas left.

But much as the ‘Daily Mail’ will doubtless demand a guillotine in the West Car Park, it’ll be odds on a glass of whiskey and a pearl-handled revolver in the library, or at worst, a discreet stiletto in the ribs when the lights mysteriously go out at the RFU Christmas Party. ‘There Will Be Blood’, as one commentator put it a week or two back. Yes, well, d’you know what, don’t bank on it. There might not be.

Certainly it’ll be fascinating – politically fascinating – to see how Ian Ritchie plays the limited cards at his disposal. If he and his panel back Lancaster, he could end up as the alternative scapegoat. If he sacks the very man he appointed and repeatedly endorsed, then the pressure on him to go too could well be overwhelming; damned if he does or if he doesn’t. Reputedly, Ritchie’s a good man: thick hide, nimble feet, sharp mind and an engaging manner. He could be in need of all those qualities in the days that lie ahead.

14 OCTOBER 2015

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