Twickenham rot shows England need a director of rugby above Steve Borthwick

Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield watch England get beaten by Scotland - David Rogers/Getty Images
Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield watch England get beaten by Scotland - David Rogers/Getty Images

Steve Borthwick’s damning assessment of the state of the England squad that he has inherited from Eddie Jones should, if nothing else, set the alarm bells ringing in the boardroom of the Rugby Football Union at Twickenham.

It is little over 10 months ago since the RFU power brokers defiantly backed the tenure of Jones, who at the time was rightly under fire for a second successive Six Nations campaign in which England suffered three defeats, insisting they had been “encouraged by the team’s solid progress”.

When further explaining this to frustrated England supporters, positive developments were hailed in terms of new players coming in, leadership on the field, maturity and composure in critical moments, spirit within the camp and “hitting certain objectives along the way”.

The question now is what are the same supporters to make of Borthwick’s analysis in the wake of the defeat by Scotland that the England team he inherited from the disastrous autumn campaign “weren’t good at anything” having received all the relevant data on the team’s performances?

England finished last year in the bottom three of tier-one countries for tries scored, defenders beaten, lineout steals and tackle success while Borthwick highlighted the scrum – where England were ranked 11th in the world last year with an 85 per cent success rate – and the breakdown as key areas where they have been left behind by other nations.

And this after seven years of Jones in charge and spending millions of pounds on the promise from the former head coach that all would be right when the World Cup came around this year.

How is it possible that almost every facet of England’s play and culture requires a complete rebuilding job, with just four competitive games left before the squad head to France?

Some might argue that Borthwick is attempting to buy time and grace by distancing himself from the previous regime. Yet those who say that do not know the man. As he has shown throughout his playing and coaching career, all he cares about is what is best for English rugby.

The green-eyed monster

But will the current structure allow him to do so? One only must cast an eye across the Irish sea to admire what Ireland have managed to achieve with a fraction of the playing resources.

It is a model where not only is the success of the national squad given priority but also head coach Andy Farrell enjoys a tight knit but accountable relationship with David Nucifora, the IRFU’s performance director.

Nucifora not only provides a sounding board for Farrell, but is also in a position to probe the decision-making of the head coach and consult on future planning and ensure longer-term strategies are carried out. He has also been totally responsible for national coaching structures and had an input into appointments at provincial level. The success is there for everyone to see.

Which brings us back to the RFU. During his seven years in charge, Jones steadfastly refused to consider working with or under a ‘director of rugby’ and was instead line-managed by the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney.

Sweeney has constantly insisted he held Jones to proper account, including his multiple off-field commercial interests, but it is fair to ask how he could possibly have kept abreast of all the nuances of the team affairs and strategy given his wide-ranging responsibilities to run the entire game in England.

Eddie Jones sits alongside RFU chief Bill Sweeney - David Rogers/Getty Images
Eddie Jones sits alongside RFU chief Bill Sweeney - David Rogers/Getty Images

Aside from Jones delivering his updates to Sweeney, the only other form of scrutiny came from the anonymous review panel that met intermittently through the years only to suddenly bare their teeth at the 11th hour of the World Cup cycle and sack Jones last December.

Last month Sweeney defended the decision for the panel to remain anonymous because they were “giving up their time to do it” and preferred not to be named because of the high level of scrutiny that would follow.

But how could the most highly-paid head coach in international rugby be properly held to account by a group of volunteers on a part-time basis who were worried about what would happen if their decisions became public?

What is most alarming is that the RFU board had plenty of warning about the inadequacy of the structure. In 2018, Jeff Blackett, who went on to become president of the RFU, delivered a stinging assessment of the current model in his final presentation as the outgoing chairman of the professional game board.

As reported by Telegraph Sport at the time, Blackett, the former chief disciplinary officer and chairman of governance at the RFU, urged the board to consider making Jones answerable to the director of professional rugby.

Jones dismissed the proposal as “the most faulty argument I have ever heard in my life” and despite being presented to the RFU board, it was kicked into touch.

Secret report

There is no surprise that Jones was not a fan. Telegraph Sport has seen further details of the report in which it criticises Jones for paying ‘lip-service’ to the PGB, giving a presentation that was already in the public domain, and that proper scrutiny was impossible because Jones reported directly to the chief executive and was given “significant latitude through his contract”.

“My concern is that at present the RFU hires a head coach, and effectively leaves everything to do with England’s success to him,” wrote Blackett in his secret report. “We all bask in the reflected glory if he does well, or sack him if he does not.

“It's been the way in which all head coaches have been hired since Sir Clive Woodward and all before Eddie have ended in failure. It seems to be a high-risk strategy.

“It is said that head coaches of any value will not work in any regime other than reporting directly to the CEO. I simply do not agree. This is one of the most prestigious, highly-remunerated and sought after jobs in world rugby and the person who is selected should work under whatever regime is required.”

And so as Borthwick begins his major rebuilding job with the squad, it is fair to ask if the RFU should also examine its own coaching management structure, almost five years since it was warned it was not working?

Conor O’Shea, a former national head coach with Italy who guided Harlequins to the Premiership title, is already in place as the RFU’s director of performance and is overseeing the impressive work by England’s age-grade coaches to improve the supply line to the senior national side. An enhanced role to work with Borthwick and also hold him accountable and act as a sounding board on a regular basis would surely be a positive step forward, however belated.