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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 March 2006, 05:06 GMT 06:06 UK
International rescue
By Simon Austin

Martin Johnson and Martin Corry
Triumph and despair... England have struggled since 2003
The World Cup might be 18 months away, but the next few weeks could be crucial to England's hopes of retaining the trophy.

The Rugby Football Union is embarking on a review of England's performance over the past year, with the results due to be announced at the end of April.

They will be asking why Andy Robinson's team performed so poorly in the Six Nations and deciding what needs to be done to put things right.

BBC Sport has put the questions they are likely to ask to some of the key figures in English rugby.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

England gained plenty of possession in each of their matches, but struggled to do much with it.

With the three-quarters looking predictable and lacking creativity, backs coach Joe Lydon has taken the brunt of the criticism.

But former New Zealand captain Sean Fitzpatrick says England's work at the breakdown was also to blame, as it meant the backs rarely had quick ball.

"Watching England at the breakdown is like watching kids play," he said.

"I watched one ruck when the English back-line was Lewis Moody, Joe Worsley and Simon Shaw, while three backs contested the breakdown."

The defence, which was the cornerstone of the World Cup win, has also been fallible, by conceding three tries against both France and Ireland.

WAS THE COACHING TO BLAME?

Northampton owner Keith Barwell told BBC Sport that England's players preferred the coaching they received at their clubs.

"If you talk to the players privately, they'll say the coaching at the clubs is better than at international level," he said.

ENGLAND COACHING TEAM
Head coach: Andy Robinson
Backs: Joe Lydon
Defence: Phil Larder
Kicking: Dave Alred
Fitness: Dave Reddin
Scrum: Phil Keith-Roach
"The less time they spend with the England coaching set-up, the better they are going to be."

Robinson has maintained the same coaching team that served Sir Clive Woodward so well at the 2003 World Cup and former England fly-half Stuart Barnes says they have become jaded.

For example, England still use the drift defence, even though the blitz system has been one of the main reasons behind Wasps' domination of English rugby in recent years.

Wasps coach Shaun Edwards, whose side use the blitz system, told BBC Sport: "Our players do have difficulty with England.

"The things Phil Larder tells them to do are the things I tell them not to do.

"When the players come back from England duty, I have to correct all the things Phil has told them.

"I have a lot of sympathy for our players."

WHO CAN COME IN?

Andy Robinson seems almost certain to see through his contract until the end of the 2007 World Cup.

Martyn Thomas, chairman of the RFU, told BBC Sport: "Andy has not become a bad coach post the World Cup and I don't blame him for what has happened."

He has a unique style of management and is a very, very special coach
Alex King on Shaun Edwards

But the rest of the back-room team is under pressure. So who should come in?

There seem to be two outstanding candidates. Shaun Edwards has been one of the architects of Wasps' recent dominance of English rugby.

Former England fly-half Alex King, who plays his club rugby under Edwards, says: "He has a unique style of management and is a very, very special coach."

And Bath coach Brian Ashton is widely recognised as one of the finest backs coaches in world rugby.

England played their most attractive and attacking rugby while Ashton was Woodward's assistant from 1998 to 2002.

And Ashton has admitted: "I feel I've got unfinished business at international level."

DOES ROBINSON NEED A MANAGER?

Woodward always described Robinson as "a great coach".

Yet Woodward was the "big picture" man, who ensured England had the best coaching staff, dealt with the media and took charge of selection and logistics.

RFU chairman Thomas said: "I'm sure that Andy himself would like to see some support for some of the jobs he is now having to do.

"He is to a large extent hands-on and also having to deal with managerial responsibilities that Clive took on."

BBC Sport understands Robinson has been asking for the assistance of a manager for the last year.

Woodward's name has been put forward by the likes of Martin Johnson, but he is under contract at Southampton and earns more than 500,000 a year, so the cost of hiring him and paying compensation could be prohibitive.

Former England centre Simon Halliday, who is now the chairman of Club England, is another favourite whose appointment has been championed by the likes of Will Carling.

ARE THE PLAYERS GOOD ENOUGH?

Robinson has undoubtedly been unlucky with the number of top players who have retired, been injured or declared themselves unavailable.

"When you lose as many key players and leaders as England did after 2003, there's going to be a bit of downtime," says King.

Andy Farrell
Farrell (right) is yet to play a competitive game
Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Paul Grayson, Jason Leonard and Dorian West retired after the World Cup, while Kyran Bracken, Mark Regan and Jason Robinson stepped down from international rugby.

Robinson has not yet been able to call on Jonny Wilkinson or Andy Farrell because of injury, and Richard Hill, Pat Sanderson and Phil Vickery were all injured during the Six Nations.

King is sure that when these players return, England will be able to thrive.

"Stuart Abbott gave them more balance in midfield when he played against France and in Tom Varndell, Josh Lewsey, Mark Cueto and Tom Voyce, they've got some real talent in the backs."

Leicester winger Varndell, Newcastle centre Mathew Tait and Sale open-side Magnus Lund all competed in the sevens competition at the Commonwealth Games, but are likely to be part of England's tour of Australia this summer.

IS TIREDNESS A FACTOR?

RFU performance director Chris Spice thinks it is.

"I'm not surprised by the results. Tiredness was always going to catch up with us towards the end of the tournament," he said after the defeat by France.

And RFU chairman Thomas drew a contrast between England's impressive performance against New Zealand last November - when they had two weeks' preparation time - with their showing in the Six Nations, when they had far less time away from their clubs.

"It's an indication that if we can secure this extra preparation time then we can deliver an international game that is acceptable," he said.

"After the New Zealand game we were turning round and saying 'we've lived with the undisputed best in the world for 80 minutes and could have even won the game'."

But Barwell says it is England's fault the players are tired.

"When Ben Cohen and Steve Thompson returned to training on Monday morning (after the defeat by Ireland), we sent them home until Friday because they were so tired," he said.

"Andy Robinson is beasting them when it would be better to give them some rest and relaxation."

The RFU and clubs are still at loggerheads over player availability.

Barwell says the clubs are prepared to cede to the RFU demands for more time with the players as long as they are properly compensated.

ARE PLAYERS COMING THROUGH?

An "unnamed RFU official" recently told the Times newspaper: "Another far-reaching question that has to be addressed is, what are the academies doing?

England U21s have won three straight Grand Slams
England have enjoyed great success at U21 level
"What have they achieved? Where are the players of the future? An awful lot of money is being invested there and so far we have seen very little return."

Jim Mallinder is interim head of the RFU Academy and insists the talent is coming through.

"England under-21s have won the Grand Slam two out of three years and that shows the strength in depth is there and good players coming through," he said.

"It's just a question of getting them up to scratch and to international standard. It's a slow process - you can't rush them through."

CAN ENGLAND WIN THE WORLD CUP?

Alex King (Wasps and England fly-half): "England won't be far off come the World Cup.

"Teams take time to gel. The side that won the 2003 World Cup had huge transitions."

Francis Baron (RFU chief executive): "We have set ourselves one hell of a mountain to climb... but I believe we have the playing talent and I know we have the coaching talent.

"Our job now is to get the right decisions taken."

Martin Johnson (World Cup-winning captain): "Even though it's been disappointing, there's definitely still an opportunity there.

"Look at how Josh Lewsey came back into the side six months before the World Cup.

"Lewis Moody burst on the scene a year or so before the tournament. So, yes, there's time for all sorts of things to happen.'"

Sean Fitzpatrick (former New Zealand captain): "England need to get smart if they are to thrive in Test rugby, particularly with their defence of the World Cup looming."

SEE ALSO
I'm here for World Cup - Robinson
19 Mar 06 |  Internationals
Sevens stars tipped for World Cup
18 Mar 06 |  Commonwealth Games
RFU rejects Woodward return claim
25 Mar 06 |  Internationals
England to ring changes for tour
20 Mar 06 |  Internationals


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