English rugby has plenty to celebrate after World Cup near miss


Danny Care and England should celebrate their achievements (Picture: Reuters)

Before I begin this column, I feel it important to point out I am Irish. Indeed, in the spirit of the support group I’ve been attending in my head of late, I should say, ‘my name is Orla Chennaoui, I am an Irish rugby supporter and I fear my heart may never heal’.

As I take my seat among my similarly despondent, teary eyed brethren, I look across to the group sitting next to us, set up for England rugby fans, and scratch my head. The handwringing, the consternation, the soul-searching. Just what is going on over there?

From this distance, I see a team who came home from the Rugby World Cup in France with a bronze medal when they were barely expected to enjoy so much as a croissant beyond the group stages.

I see a team unbeaten until the semi-final when they pushed the now history-making four-time winners, South Africa, to within a point of a shot at the overall win. I see a team who confounded the critics, game after game, and kept doing the only thing you really need to do in any elite sport; that is to say, win.

From this vantage point, where my team had their best chance in history to get a fingertip to the Webb Ellis Cup, where they continued to play the kind of rugby that brought them to the world No.1 spot and yet still could not get beyond the quarter-finals, I have to say, I don’t get it. I don’t get it.


Ireland and their fans were devastated to lose in the quarter-finals

Ireland and their fans were devastated to lose in the quarter-finals (Picture: Alamy)

Why the existential angst? Why the near-blanket refusal to cheer a team who dug deep when it mattered most and made it count? Because they didn’t win the World Cup? Come on, that was never the realistic ambition.

Because they didn’t play the most exciting rugby? Give me wins over flair any day, unless I’m a neutral. Sure, England had an easier run to that semi-final but if Ireland aren’t allowed to use the ‘luck’ of the draw as their excuse (which we can’t and we aren’t), then why has it become a stick to beat England with?

I say I don’t get it, but that’s disingenuous. I do really, I’ve been a journalist for long enough. I know how it works. Negativity sells, criticism is worn as a badge of intelligence. ‘Yes, you may have progressed further than anyone expected and proven us wrong us at every turn but you can’t fool us all the same. We know better. To paraphrase the football terraces, ‘you’re still rubbish really and you know you are’.

Seriously, though, give us a break. The fans deserve a little more credit, if nothing else. Finishing third at the World Cup and moving back into the top five in the world rankings is a lot better than most feared at the end of the summer.

We talk about Ireland being jinxed by the quarter-final hoodoo but are England haunted by their past success? Can each team not be judged on their own merit and where they have come from in the current cycle instead of being looked at through the impossibly rose-tinted glasses of 2003?

With international stars returning to their clubs as soon as this week, maybe it’s time to take some positives from the World Cup and the current potential of the English game. We know the domestic club scene is at a critical, potentially dangerous crossroads.

Having lost three teams to financial meltdown last year, the Premiership is down to ten sides and will struggle to afford the loss of another.

But to be clinical about this, the world-class players this country has, of which there are many, are now condensed into fewer sides. The teams playing every weekend are even more stacked with international talent than before. With fewer teams to play, the stakes of each game are higher than ever and there’s much work for some of the big England stars to do, to make up for lost club time.

Tomorrow night, I’m off to Manchester to enjoy the prospect of George Ford, among others, returning to action for Sale Sharks against Gloucester Rugby. Ford’s Sale, last year’s runners-up, have a figurative and several literal points to prove after getting nilled away to Exeter in a 43-0 thumping last weekend.

Indeed, in the collective absence of the international stars, we have seen upsets aplenty in the Premiership already. The defending champions, Saracens, are sitting ninth out of ten and, while we’ve only just started, this year’s league is more of a sprint than a marathon. There is simply less time to make up for a poor start.

Marcus Smith is one of the stars of the Premiership

Marcus Smith is one of the stars of the Premiership (Picture: PA)

The storylines have been gripping already and we’re only three rounds deep. So yes, there is a lot that still needs to be done in domestic and international English rugby, but as an outsider, I say there is also a lot to get excited about.

Between the young talent coming through and the bloody-minded grit of the older guard, there is a selection of players in this country who can still challenge the best in the world when they are far from their collective best themselves.

We have a Premiership sitting wide open with all sorts of jeopardy at play, and we have a fanbase who are hopefully just a little more engaged than they were back at the beginning of September.

So, instead of standing on the sidelines and chanting the sport’s demise, maybe it’s time to give it a bit of a cheer. In a sporting landscape still dominated by football, we cannot bemoan the lack of sporting diversity then actively participate in the consolidation of the status quo.

If you are coming to rugby after the thrills of the World Cup, or giving it another chance after believing the naysayers and the doom mongers ahead of France 2023, I say welcome. There’s plenty here to entertain you and, who knows, maybe a bit of love, support and positive pressure from the critics as well as the fans is just what the game could do with right now.

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