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Rugby World Cup: Stuart Lancaster faces axe after England exit

By Jonathan Bradley

After leaving New Zealand under a cloud of criticism four years ago, England suffered a different kind of ignominy at their own World Cup on Saturday evening following a 33-13 humiliation at the hands of Australia.

At least the dwarf-tossers made it to the quarter-finals.

Stuart Lancaster was brought in after the 2011 tournament as head coach, a house-cleaning exercise that was meant to rid England of the nefarious element said to have undermined their bid for a second William Webb Ellis Cup.

The preaching of character and values were the twin totem poles of his reign, an insistence that saw the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley and Danny Care either left out of the squad or out of the match-day 23s.

Kurtley Beale for example, the utility back who was an important performer for Australia after emerging early from the bench, would never have been allowed within a ten-mile radius of Pennyhill Park given his long list of past transgressions.

In theory it was an admirable endeavour - an effort to reconnect the team with an English public repelled by their antics - but culture, it seems, can do nothing to get the better of David Pocock and Michael Hooper at the breakdown.

Lancaster, not unlike his captain Chris Robshaw, seems like an utterly likeable individual, an English leader that can elicit rare sympathy from his rivals in times of misfortune, but it's hard to imagine he can survive this catastrophe.

While Clive Woodward with England and Graham Henry with New Zealand both suffered World Cup failure before achieving ultimate glory, this exit seems too calamitous to pull back from the brink.

Not only will they forever be known as the first hosts to exit the tournament without reaching the last eight, they have done so with one game to spare.

How odd an atmosphere it will be at the Etihad against Uruguay next Saturday with both teams having long since been rendered non-factors at the competition.

Lancaster's post-match press conference had a funereal air; questions carefully crafted to elicit a response from a man who clearly was at the lowest ebb of his professional career.

"Yeah, obviously I think I've got to," he admitted when asked if he would now consider his position.

"We've still got another week to go and my priority is to get the team ready for Uruguay.

"It's not up to me what happens elsewhere, so we've still got a lot of work to do. The responsibility and accountability lies with me, so clearly."

Much like his team, he struggled for answers, at one point saying: "I can't even begin to explain how it feels, to be honest."

If you could have watched the Wales defeat over and over without being able to fathom how England lost, repeat viewings of Saturday's catastrophe just left the impression that the 2003 champions did well to get 13. Their ball slowed to an interminable pace by Australia's other-worldly back-row, when it did emerge to the backs they lacked incision and direction, especially compared to the excellent Bernard Foley.

While the return of a fit-again Jonathan Joseph at least injected some impetus - and saved us another 80 minutes of watching Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt combined in midfield - he was ploughing something of a lone furrow in the creativity stakes.

Indeed the introduction of George Ford at half-time provided proof, if any were needed, that the Bath string-puller should never have been dropped in the first place, a rare talent in what can at times be a wholly pedestrian back division.

If Australia's increased variety behind the scrum should come as no surprise, it was the Wallaby tight-five who provided an eyebrow-raising performance.

A scrum that was derided as an achilles heel in the build-up produced penalty after penalty at the set-piece.

If even England's traditional areas of superiority over their opponents were not going the way of the rose, what chance did they have?

In the end it barely resembled a contest, some fans made a dash for an earlier-than-expected train home long before the final whistle sounded and will have missed Matt Giteau striking the final blow.

Fitting or cruel depending on your persuasion, the Toulon star is another who would have fallen foul of England's selection policy given that he is based abroad. One wonders what his club-mate Steffon Armitage made of Australia's dominance on the deck.

England's tournament over some four weeks before they were meant to return to Twickenham for a final …unfortunately for Lancaster, the post-mortem is likely just beginning.

Belfast Telegraph


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