England's exit: Don't blame test-match cohesion, but club unity makes difference

England's critics focused on the wrong target as familiarity is rare in international matches. But the club system in Australia gives Wallabies a clear advantage

LONDON, Oct 5 – Before England’s match with Australia, several experts stated that familiarity, and the experience of playing together, was hugely important. Indeed, as head coach Stuart Lancaster said of England's trip to Denver for pre-World Cup training, “It’s all about developing cohesion in the team.”

Ostensibly the easiest way to create team cohesion is by selecting players in combinations for test matches and allowing those groupings to play together often enough to develop the sort of understanding required for the intensity of test match rugby.

What the experts got wrong before the game that eliminated the hosts from the World Cup was to suggest that England had little or no cohesion and had rarely played together in test matches.

For a start, playing together in test rugby is rarer than one might imagine. It is very unusual for an entire starting XV, or even a pack, to have played together in the same positions more than a few times.

Same side for opener

The record number of test matches where the starting XV is the exactly the same is five, set by South Africa in 1996. Australia did it four times in 1998, as did England in 2000, New Zealand in 1997, South Africa in 1998, and Scotland in 1996.

There are a further 21 instances of international teams selecting the same starting XV three times. And to be clear, that is not consecutive selections with the same side; only once since 1995 has a coach named the same international starting XV five times.

That consistency is even more rare across more than one calendar year. Since 1995, only one nation has fielded exactly the same starting XV more than once over a period of more than 12 months: Italy named the same starting XV twice, once in 2009 and once in 2010.

Otherwise, every time there has been consistent selection from one to 15, it has only occurred within one calendar year.

Having taken that into account, England actually had quite a high degree of cohesion at test level, especially compared to their opponents. For example, Stuart Lancaster named the same side against Fiji in the RWC 2015 opener as he did in the last warm-up game against Ireland.

Before the England-Australia game, the main combinations in both teams had played together as follows: 

Player combinations for Australia and England
Positions Australia England
Front row 3 9
Second row 4 9
Back row 2 9
Half-backs 1 7
Centres 3 2
Back three 3 8

The only area where England deployed a less experienced combination was in the centres, and there, only by one test match’s worth of experience. England were far more used to playing alongside each other in the crucial combinations of a test team than Australia.

Where Australia did have a clear advantage, though, was historic cohesion, or what rugby analyst and former Wallaby prop Ben Darwin calls ‘bottom-up’ cohesion. The Australian starting XV was drawn from four teams, with two providing the bulk: the Brumbies supplied 1, 2, 6, 8, 13; the Waratahs (pictured in action) supplied 3, 7, 10, 11, 14, 15; Reds supplied 4, 5, 9; and only Toulon’s Matt Giteau at 12 played for a team not in Super Rugby (this is mitigated, in part, by his high skill levels and high number of test caps).

By contrast, England had very little club, or bottom-up, cohesion. The starting XV came from eight different clubs, two of which, Wasps and Exeter, provided only one member of the team. The Leicester combination at hooker and tighthead was beneficial, as was the Saracens combination at fly-half and inside centre, but otherwise the line-up was far more diffuse compared to Australia's.

Super Rugby's advantage

England's players had far more experience, in general, of playing together in the national team's colours than club jerseys. Australia might have had less experience playing test rugby together, but their club experience and familiarity gave them far greater cohesion. This is the huge advantage of Super Rugby over Premiership rugby: a smaller pool of sides creates far more cohesion for the international team.

The experts were not wrong that cohesion is important, but they drastically over-valued test match familiarity. Stuart Lancaster actually created a much more familiar test side than his opponents, but he was working above a club system that inherently disadvantaged him.

RNS as/bo