Much has been written about the current England team and many comparisons have been made with the Class of 2003 – including player for player Top Trumps.
I personally think that journalists have missed a trick and should have, instead, focused their analysis on the 2017 v 1991/92 teams. Two teams who do not have the ‘unfair advantage’, when it comes to comparison, of having won a World Cup, but that have dominated the 5/6 Nations in their time.
Will Carling’s own comments regarding his career as an England player and captain, seem to sum up the lack of conscious thought about the achievements of ‘his’ team. He laughs, self deprecatingly, about how his children refuse to acknowledge he even played for England, never mind captained them on 59 occasions between 1988-1996. I believe that many supporters and pundits alike, do not consciously acknowledge just how good that team was and what it achieved – and I am not just talking about results.
The first thing to say, and I think that Mr Carling would be the first to admit it, is that a huge amount of the credit for that team’s success has to go to Geoff Cooke. When he was appointed as Manager of the England team in 1987 his exposure to elite rugby was limited to say the least. Bradford RFC, Yorkshire and North of England has no comparison whatsoever to Eddie Jones’ CV when he was appointed. What Cooke did with England, however, was hugely impressive and seems to have been glossed over when talk turns to which managers/ head coaches have been successful in the job.
He was, perhaps, the first in the role not to simply do things the same way as they always had been done. He was innovative, he was ruthless, often radical and always rigorous. He was also one of the first to put player welfare above many other considerations. He was definitely not afraid to stand up to the ‘suits’ at the RFU and he demanded a level of authority hitherto unheard of. It was this strength of character, that served him and England so well from 1987-1994, that led to increasing friction between him and the RFU and ultimately his resignation in March of 1994.
His impact on English rugby should not be forgotten or understated. He dragged the team from being perennial under-achievers to one that was respected around the world. A world cup final and back to back Grand Slams in 1991 & 1992 is impressive in anyones book, but it was the decision he made in appointing Will Carling his captain that was, possibly, his bravest and most radical one.
Carling received the phone call from Cooke, fully expecting to be told he was going to be dropped from the team after only 7 caps. Carling was shocked and even had to ask Cooke if he genuinely thought he could do the job. It is important to remember that Carling was only 22 years old and possibly perceived as being too ‘posh’ in a team of gnarly veterans – Probyn, Moore, Richards, Dooley and Winterbottom to name a few – and was not even on the radar as to being a likely candidate for the post.
He tells a wonderful anecdote, in his autobiography, about just how far he was from the forefront of people’s minds.
Having already been appointed by Cooke, but sworn to secrecy, he was stood in the bar after Harlequins had played Richmond, when a discussion began about who would be named captain that evening when the England team convened at the Petersham hotel before playing Australia. The names being bandied around included, amongst others, fellow Quins, Brian Moore and Simon Halliday. Carling, jokingly said “What about me?”. By his own admission, everyone just looked at him and laughed. Someone even said “Piss off. Don’t be so stupid”. Hardly the reaction he was hoping for even if he might have been expecting it!
History shows that it was a gutsy and inspired decision. They both worked tirelessly in their roles to ensure that England were the best that they could be. Between them, they had to instill self belief into a group of players used to losing. Attention to detail became the norm – for example, knowing what made individual players tick and treating them accordingly. Training was not to be sneered at. It all seems so obvious now, but it was almost unheard of then. Effectively, they were the two protagonists in shifting the mentality of players attitudes both on and off the pitch.
Some could say that Jones’ appointment of Hartley was also out of left field and equally as gutsy. It certainly attracted as many column inches as did Carling’s.
To my mind that teams greatest accomplishment, on the pitch, was undoubtably the back to back Grand slams achieved in 1991 & 1992. Something only achieved on five occasions in history – England Three times: 1913 & 1914; 1923 & 1924; 1991 & 1992. Wales Once: 1908 & 1909. France Once: 1997 &1998.
Yesterday, the current crop of players attempted to equal that. Hartley’s team had been on a run of 18 unbeaten matches (Carling’s managed 10 on the trot) had destroyed Scotland the previous weekend and were, pretty much, fielding a full strength 23. Ireland, on the other hand, had experienced a mixed 6 Nations to that point and lost 3 key players to injury in the build up. I am sure that England, as was I, were confident in their ability to emulate the ’91/’92 team.
It wasn’t to be and Ireland were deserving winners in a tight and slightly turgid test match. Once again proving just how hard it is to do.
If you look at the two teams player by player you will possibly come to the same conclusion that I have. The make up of the team and their contrasting styles of play make direct comparison very hard. Yes, you can make cases in a number of positions that either player was/is the better. What Carling’s team had in spades, that Hartley’s is still developing, is ‘dog’ in the forwards.
I know who I would put my money on in a fight!
Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Bayfield/Ackford, Dooley, Teague/Skinner, Winterbottom Richards/Rodber,
Marler, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Itoje, Haskell, Vunipola,
I have little doubt that the future of the current crop of players is going to be spectacular – not that they are doing poorly at the moment.
All of the great teams in world sport have gone through bad times before they have achieved immortality. The current team has endured their fair share of pain in a short period of time – being dumped out of a home World Cup and yesterday are all milestones in creating the inner strength and unshakeable bond that will serve them well in the years to come. They are a good team that can be great, but beating records is hard. Very hard. If this group are to do that there are still big steps to be taken. I believe that history will show that it was a good thing that England lost yesterday, however disappointing it was. New Zealand’s poor performance in the 2007 World Cup did them no harm did it?
Perhaps, following yesterdays result, we will now all appreciate the magnitude of the achievement of Cooke, Carling and that team of heroes.
TEAMS, GRAND SLAM WINNING MATCHES 91 & 92:-
1991 Vs France – Hodgkinson, Heslop, Carling (c), Guscott, R Underwood, Andrew, R Hill, Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Ackford, Dooley, Teague, Winterbottom, Richards
1992 Vs Wales – Webb, Halliday, Carling (c), Guscott, R Underwood, Andrew, Morris, Leonard, Moore, Probyn, Bayfield, Dooley, Skinner, Winterbottom, Richards