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Why England Lost the Rugby World Cup

Actually it was worse than that. We were the first host nation ever to be thrown out at the pool stage. We didn't even get as far as the quarter finals and the knock-out stages. To be fair, Japan are hosting the event in four years time, so we're not likely to be the last either (unless they can build on their amazing performance in beating South Africa this year).

So why did one of the strongest rugby teams in the world (we beat South Africa, Australia and New Zealand within the past couple of years as well as all of the European nations) lose those vital pool matches against Wales and Australia? Wales at least were vulnerable having lost several of their star players to injury. Admittedly Australia were always going to be hard to beat, but even Scotland managed to come within a point of beating them in the QFs.

Firstly all credit to the Taffs and Aussies. They threw everything at us and played dogged defensive games. There was a great deal of criticism of Stuart Lancaster's team selections, especially in the 10, 12 and 13 positions, which certainly didn't help, either with player confidence or with team building. But I believe the problem was more fundamental than that. I believe the whole squad were told not to make mistakes... don't give away the ball, don't give away penalties, just get the basics right... to the point where every man was terrified of the reaction from his teammates, his coaches, the fans and the media if he tried anything that might result in a mistake. They, to a man, froze in the headlights. We talked them out of playing with flair. We made sure that none of them played to their full potential.

For years I've been watching England players show off for their clubs, week in week out. They know they're playing in front of an admiring supportive audience who will criticise them for not trying innovative and challenging moves. They play to the limits of the laws and, most of the time, they get away with it. But when they pull on their England jerseys, they know they can't make mistakes. Their whole career depends on it. So they play safe. They don't play to the limits of their capabilities, they play well within them. They don't try tricky things, because they might fail and then their careers and reputations are ruined. They become tidy safe team players, not star performers.

You might think that every international player at the World Cup is under the same pressure. But it's nothing like the pressure the 2015 Rugby World Cup put on the England squad. Never before in the history of rugby has so much money and hype been lavished on the sport. With tickets costing over £1,000 for the finals and with huge ad campaigns for sponsors covering every inch of TV and social media leading up to and during the month of the tournament, the stress on every selected player must have been utterly incredible. No wonder they lost. We never let them trust their skills and imagination... and that's a problem not just for sportsmen and women under the intense spotlight of publicity, it's also a problem for our politicians and our business leaders. Too scared to make a mistake.

Read Tim Harford's excellent book - Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.


  1. Grombler, you have a fair point which could probably extend beyond the players to the coaching staff. After the honeymoon of his first season in charge the media the public rarely got behind Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team and criticism of their mistakes has invariably out-weighed praise for their successes. It's no wonder their mentality appears to one of not losing rather than winning. Even the praise for his team's 2012 victory over the All Blacks was qualified because the AB's were somehow a little under the weather. In this RWC some of his selection decisions might have seemed risky eg Sam Burgess starting at centre against Wales - but it could equally have been a safety first decision - he picked a team that he thought would contain the so called Warren Ball tactics of the Welsh.


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