Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, former England supremo ROB ANDREW talks about the impressive structures the RFU have put in place, the state of South African rugby and previews the England versus South Africa Test at Twickenham on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: You were the RFU’s professional rugby director for a decade. What legacy do you feel you left behind?
Rob Andrew: Our academy system has improved dramatically over the last 10 years and we have put plenty of time, money and effort into relationships with our schools, club academies and professional clubs. Everyone is working together to develop a young, well-rounded athlete. 10 years ago we had never featured in an age-grade final at any level. However, in the last four years, we have been the dominant side at junior national level and have won three of the last four World Rugby under-20 Junior Championships. It speaks to the systems that we have put in place and us all being on the same page. In England, it has taken eight years in order to put the system together. After England won the 2003 World Cup, we experienced a difficult phase. Relationships were poor, production of players wasn’t good enough and we had to build from the bottom up. When I joined the RFU, I remarked that we needed an English solution to an English problem. I’m pleased to say that we found the right recipe and our collective efforts are now bearing fruits. At under-18 and under-20 level, England are as good as anybody in world rugby and the senior national team remains unbeaten under Eddie Jones.
Sport24 asked: What factors have led to England’s renaissance since exiting their home World Cup in horror last year?
Rob Andrew: First of all, there was a talented group of players who were growing as a team. And before the World Cup, I believed that the team would only get better over the next two to three years. For me, it was pretty obvious that England wouldn’t peak at the 2015 Rugby World Cup because it was a young team. It was clearly disappointing what happened at the showpiece but it’s fundamentally the same group of players that are now a bit more experienced and have spent more time together. However, there is no question that Jones has done a number of things well since he took over the position and he has made a big difference. His selection has been sound, his man-management has been excellent and the players seem well-prepared for each Test match that they play. A further key to England’s renewed success is that they only really focus on the next game. In terms of playing personnel, it’s really positive that Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell have been nominated for the World Rugby Player of the Year award. Since England last won the World Cup in 2003, to be frank, there haven’t been too many English players who would be regarded as world-class performers that could easily walk into a world XV team. However, the aforementioned trio are exciting players who have come through successful age-grade national teams. Itoje captained England to the Junior World Championship title in 2014. The talented triumvirate are all enjoying international experience and developing at the very highest level. It’s a great credit to the players and the system itself. And, as Jones said when he took the helm as head coach of England on a four-year contract, the fact of the matter is that you need to possess a handful of world-class players in your side if you want to win the Rugby World Cup.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of South African rugby and what challenges are facing the local game?
Rob Andrew: It’s very clear that the South African game is going through a period of transition. It’s something that happens in all systems around the world, and the desire is that it doesn’t impact too heavily on the performances of the team. However, that is easier said than done as it is a difficult thing to do. South African rugby is clearly experiencing change at a political, coaching and player level. They have lost very experienced players who have been the bedrock of the local game for the last decade. Those types of players take some replacing. It’ certainly a transitional period and now it’s about finding solutions to the problems at hand. I don’t know enough about the South African system or the politics in the country to offer a definitive view, but I know that you can’t build a successful model unless everybody is pulling in the same direction. In terms of player pool, we all know that the strength in depth in SA rugby is enormous. However, there are clearly challenges with players heading overseas and those issues need to be addressed. It’s about pulling the right players together, developing them and then creating a cohesive team unit. It certainly takes time to produce a quality international rugby team – you can’t throw a team together in two minutes and tell the players to go off and be world-class. The 2007 South African team, which defeated England in the Rugby World Cup final in Paris, was littered with world-class players and now South African supporters have to be patient as a new generation of players forge a national identity.
Sport24 asked: As a former international flyhalf how would you assess South Africa and England’s option at No 10?
Rob Andrew: In recent times, there has been a bit of chopping and changing for South Africa in the flyhalf berth. Elton Jantjies, Morné Steyn and Patrick Lambie have all worn the No 10 jersey for the Springboks. Owing to the fact that Handré Pollard has been out injured this year that has probably had a big part to play. Pollard, now 22, came through the under-20 program and was outstanding when he captained the Junior Springboks. For me, he is the flyhalf that South Africa should pin their long-term hopes on. In terms of England, George Ford and Owen Farrell are both outstanding players who have come through the system together. They are slightly different types of players but both are very capable flyhalves. If the team was made up somewhat differently it would be a really interesting debate in terms of who is the best flyhalf. It almost happened by accident in some respects that Farrell fulfils the role of inside centre for the senior national team. He is employed as a flyhalf for his club side, Saracens, but the 10-12 combination of Ford and Farrell gives the England side so much balance and control. In many ways, the latter boasts all of the attributes you look for in a modern day inside centre.
Sport24 asked: England are favourites to win on Saturday despite last beating South Africa in 2006. Your prediction?
Rob Andrew: Top-level Test matches are always tough challenges but I believe England will prevail on Saturday owing to the cohesiveness of their team and the confidence they will take with them into the encounter. The cohesiveness of the England set-up versus the transitionary phase that South Africa finds itself in at the moment will have a massive impact on the outcome. It comes down to winning the set-piece, making good decisions on attack and defence, not putting yourself under pressure, building pressure on the opposition, winning the collisions and slowing down opposition ball. Having tackled the Springboks myself as a player, whenever you play against South Africa you always have to meet the physical challenge. If you don’t, you are put under massive pressure and ultimately end up on the back foot. Jones described the Springboks as “bullies” in the build-up to the Test and, in my book, it’s nothing more than pre-match banter and hype. We have heard it all before. South African rugby is very physical but so too is English rugby. Test match rugby is all about applying scoreboard and tactical pressure, and I foresee England having the edge over the course of the 80 minutes.
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