England’s devastating exit from their own Rugby World Cup was due in part to professional players being ‘bubble wrapped’ straight into the England team without the necessary life experience, believes former player Ben Cohen.
The 2003 World Cup winner explained that a lack of experience and leaders cost Stuart Lancaster’s side dearly, but that his generation – who began their careers as amateurs – were more hungry to win.
“In 2003 it was still amateur/professional,” Cohen said at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. “People really still were so happy to be a professional sportsman because they had already worked.
“Now that the players are fully fledged professionals, they don’t really understand what the real world’s about. They come out of school, and they go straight into professional rugby in a bubble wrap,” he said. “They don’t necessarily appreciate being a professional sportsman. They probably see what happens in football and they put actually what got them there in the first place – their talent, their skill, desire to be a sportsman – in third place, and actually earning money and having a bit of a Twitter following is more important. Which is my frustration about it.”
Cohen also pointed out the 2003 World Cup winners’ experience compared with Lancaster’s squad.
“One thing that Clive [Woodward] was very good at was covering his bases. Know when you’re in the heat of pressure what you’re going to do. What ‘ifs’ in games happen. What if at 77 minutes we’re chasing the game by three points? Do we go for goal, get the points and get back up in their half? What will our first calls be?
“That’s what a world class team, not just at Premiership level but in international rugby, should be thinking. History shows that experience wins World Cups. England left experience behind.”
Cohen was part of a squad that included captain Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Jason Leonard, all of whom had careers that straddled both the amateur and professional eras. They also, explained Cohen, all acted as leaders on the pitch.
“When you are on the pitch, you need those senior players to step up to the plate and go, ‘Yes we will lead by our actions’. One thing England didn’t have was that experience and leaders. I think Robshaw was really alone in that, and it did affect his performance massively.”
“Yes, back in my day we did have a lot of leaders,” he added, many of which had learned from the pain of losing in 1999 to South Africa in the quarter finals. “I remember one particular game in 2002 against Australia at Twickenham. We went behind by two tries.
“With about 20 minutes to go, Martin Johnson, man of few words, turned round and had everyone’s attention. ‘Right, this is what we’re going to do, we’re going to get into their half with these x and y moves, and then Wilko [Jonny Wilkinson], we’re going to kick and we’re going to build the score back to where we can win this game.’ England had that habit, that behaviour of building a score.”
Lancaster’s squad, he explained, lacked that clear thinking against Wales when they were 10 points ahead – and ultimately paid the price.