Phil Larder, the man who put the D in England, one of the few British coaches to have won a Rugby World Cup and the specialist who has turned Worcester Warriors into one of the Premiership’s toughest nuts, has lambasted the shambles that was this country’s most recent attempt to win the Webb Ellis trophy.
As if anyone needs reminding England, the most populous and wealthiest rugby nation on the planet, squandered that legacy in New Zealand this autumn with a sequence of sub-par performances that saw them match their worst ever showing at a RWC as they were eliminated in the quarter finals.
On the pitch the entire campaign never really left terra firma while off it Martin Johnson found his squad weakened by discipline breaches, internal politicking and administrative confusion at the Rugby Football Union – and the situation has only worsened since their return.
Johnson has stepped down from his post of team manager, Rob Andrew has been stripped of all responsibility for the Test side – and no little dignity – and what was supposed to be an internal review was leaked to the press in which players were revealed to be at odds with both their coaches and each other.
And Larder, who in 2003 was defence coach for Clive Woodward’s world champions, has made no effort to conceal his distaste at the way Johnson was let down by parties below and above him, as some England players and the RFU establishment turned what should have been a triumph into disaster.
Indeed, speaking for the first time on the matter, the 66-year-old believes the whole campaign was likely to fail before Johnson and his squad even stepped on a plane and he offers a telling contrast with the way things were structured eight years ago when Woodward was master of all he surveyed.
“The way it seems to have been run it was very difficult for Jonno to have been successful, things were stacked against him,” Larder says.
“I think Jonno had too wide a brief and was too inexperienced. He didn’t have a manager. We had a manager – Louise Ramsay, who was awesome.
“We [also] had Clive who was overseeing all the process and I get the impression Jonno, being Jonno, was getting sucked in more and more to working with the players on the pitch, doing the analysis and putting his tracksuit on. There was nobody standing back getting the bigger picture.
“Clive Woodward is the best person of anybody in any sport at seeing the bigger picture and managing it. That’s what Jonno isn’t. I don’t think the RFU gave Jonno the support he needed.
“I know that if Clive Woodward had been in charge of this set-up that wouldn’t have happened.
“Clive took on that role, his job was to advise us in the coaching, push in the right way as to how to play, manage us all and then step back and see the big picture. Nobody could possibly have been doing that over there [because] he would have nipped anything like that in the bud.”
The ‘like that’ to which Larder refers is the lack of on-field clarity to which some players alluded during the now infamous feedback process, which was supposed to be confidential but found itself into the pages of The Times.
Nobody, perhaps with the exception of scrum coach Graham Rowntree, emerged unscathed from the review that asked players to complete questionnaires and while the concept of a post-World Cup debrief is not a new, the vitriol of the their comments surprised Larder.
Particularly when one is claimed to have criticised the current Red Rose defence coach, Mike Ford, as providing analysis akin to a ‘white wall of jargon’.
“[In 2003] A player would have said ‘There’s something Mike Ford said that I don’t understand’ and Clive would have told them to go and discuss it with Mike,” Larder claims.
“I have seen it reported that one player said Mike Ford gave information and used jargon they couldn’t understand.
“I don’t believe that but if he did there would have been time on a Monday after an international to say ‘Hang on Fordy, I don’t quite understand that’. That’s how you do it.
“When I was working with England were we not a team we were a family. You cannot win a World Cup unless you have got this family ethos – you treat everyone like a brother, you go out on the pitch and you put your body on the line and the coaches prepare you to do that.
“[Then] Everything comes out in the open after every match – players tell coaches, coaches tell players, because you are in the improvement industry.
“You do it by saying ‘Fordy, when you said that I didn’t quite understand it’. That happens here (Worcester) and that’s how England operate – not for Mike, Jonno, Wellsy and Smithy to come back and have it thrown in the papers from players who have not got the strength of character or courage to put their names to it. I just can’t believe that has happened, it’s beyond me.”
The family theme is one Larder considers to be important. Whatever happened internally with the 2003 squad, externally they presented a united face, one focused on fulfilling its destiny.
Even then the best side in the world needed a late drop goal to haul themselves over the finishing line and on that basis anything other than complete unanimity, among a squad that was inferior to the one Johnson led as a player, would have only one conclusion.
“The first thing I do is criticise myself and every player has to go through that process. He has got to look himself in the mirror and put his hand-up and say ‘I am not sure I did myself justice in that game’.
“I am not saying I didn’t see that in the current World Cup squad. But I did see players hiding behind anonymity and blaming the coaching staff.
“There was one quote that they won a match and went in the dressing room and said ‘That win has just saved a couple of coaches’.
“If there is anybody thinking that in the set-up they should not have been in the set-up. You are family.
“It’s like saying ‘My dad’s let me down’. If he has you do it behind closed doors, in front of the family.
“If your coach has let you down then you discuss it in the review in front of the players, in front of the head coach and in front of the guy who you think has let you down.
“Not by hiding behind an anonymous questionnaire. Not by bringing it home and putting it on the table for the first time four or five weeks after the competition has ended.”
All of which, with Johnson’s hot seat vacant, no line manager in place and no chief operating officer, indeed many important governance roles unfilled, leads Larder to only one conclusion – give Woodward whatever he wants to save the ship from going down.
“If everybody was available and I was the RFU I would approach Woodward and see which job he wanted.
“If he wanted to be chief executive I would give him that, if he wanted performance director I would give him that. I do not know anybody at all who is better suited or qualified to do the job. Whether he would want it or not I don’t know.
“England have only won the World Cup once and it is down to Clive Woodward being in charge of a special group of players and coaches.”