Rugby Union

England players had every right to remove their runners-up medals

JAMES HASKELL: England players had every right to remove their Rugby World Cup runners-up medals… few people can understand how elite players feel after falling at the final hurdle

  • England players are unlikely to treasure their medals after defeat by South Africa
  • The players must do all they can to ignore the noise of social media pundits
  • After the dust has settled, players will realise the gravity of their achievements
  • I believe England must embrace sports psychology in order to triumph in 2023

I think for obvious reasons none of England’s players will be framing their runners-up medals on the wall when they get home this week. I have seen comments already criticising players for taking them off straight away after the presentation.

Anyone who suggests this is guilty of a misunderstanding and has never played sport at the highest level. They have never worked super hard to achieve something and then fallen at the final hurdle.

Nobody cares about coming second. In 2019 we make everyone feel better about themselves and say, have this medal for 10th place or it’s about taking part. These are things we tell ourselves, but what matters is 1st place, the gold medal.

Many of England’s players did not put their medals on after losing to South Africa in the final

The players who get silver will be p****d off, they will be upset, and they will be despondent. It’s how we are all built and it’s frankly how it should be at an elite level. No one got anywhere being happy with defeat.

Friends and family will be telling them to be proud of reaching a World Cup final but, for a few weeks at least, the players will not want to listen. No professional athlete wants to come second. In the words of Ricky Bobby from Talladega nights, ‘If you’re not first, you’re last’.

The truth of course is that what they achieved is incredible and they should be proud. They did something that no England team has done for 12 years. They left nothing out on the pitch and should be happy. Over time this will come, but it’s hard to listen to reason when you are p****d off, upset and devastated.

This being said I am sure some players will keep their silver medal in a drawer and use it as motivation. All Blacks scrum-half Aaron Smith framed his shirt from the defeat by England in 2012 and put it up in his living room because it was the only Test he’d lost.

Prop Kyle Sinckler is visibly upset as he takes the runners up medal off from around his neck

He wanted that constant reminder of never to feel like that again. He’s not done too badly since. If I hung up every shirt I had lost in, the wall of my house would have fallen down. I imagine it’s nice to have only lost a couple on the way.

My advice would be to keep off social media. Get away from it completely. It’s a bizarre echo chamber of half-wits ranting, and spreading poison. A lot of fair-weather fans watch the World Cup final and they will all be piling in on the worst and most basic platform of social media – Twitter.

It’s the entry level to social media and every idiot with an opinion will be telling them how to scrum, how to play or be just down right hateful. I actually deactivated my Twitter today, for this very reason.

I would suggest taking some time off and go away with the family. The players need a break. They’ve been away for months so to look after their sanity and don’t rush back, time off is key.

The first priority is to let dust settle and really appreciate what they achieved by getting to a World Cup final. Our campaign in 2011 was toilet and 2015 was even worse. The storm won’t be like it was four years ago so they can weather it and stick together.

Lock Maro Itoje did not put his medal round his neck after being handed it by Bill Beaumont

Fans, pundits, journalists might be saying the wheels have come off but allow emotions to ebb away before you make any rash decisions. When you read comments about the players and the team, be sure to check if the person writing them has ever actually been near a pitch at the highest level.

It’s easy to talk about what has been lost, what issues there are. But that’s the point it’s easy to watch from afar and pick holes.

There is a fantastic quote from Ernest Hemingway: ‘Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors’ That for me is what will happen in the coming months and weeks. I urge caution and calm.

Two of the best teams in the world went into a final, only one could come out. That’s all that happened here, nothing more and nothing less.

They should take some time to reflect. This group had a world record-equalling winning run, then they had a dip where people were calling for Eddie Jones’ head, and what’s happened since has been inspiring. Four-year cycles are a very demanding thing – people come and go – and they need to let it all sink in.

England captain Owen Farrell looks at his medal but does not put it back on after the match

The thought of targeting 2023 right now is a horrific thought – but you do it together. It’s like starting an Olympic cycle all over again. This team can still do something special and that requires getting over the heartbreak.

Someone like Steve Borthwick has given his life to this campaign. Whenever you call him, he’s in his car driving around the country seeing players or visiting clubs. It’s not been 9 to 5 with Eddie. It’s been a 24-hour thing. It’s been demanding and it’s a big ask to keep it together, but the core of this team can go again in France in 2023 and win.

Time will catch up with the obvious candidates, but new kids will appear out of the woodwork… Someone like Fraser Dingwall who I watched coming through at Northampton. A lot of the current group will be arriving in France aged 29 or 30. There’s still huge potential.

The mental side of addressing this will be really important. I’d use sports psychologists. They didn’t lose to South Africa because of fitness, lack of preparation or the wrong game plan. Their bodies were physically there so what, if anything, let them down on the day?

I feel devastated for Eddie Jones, for him this World Cup campaign was a 24-hour job

People talk about having played the final a week early. That’s not a thing, there is no science to that, it’s just an old wives’ tale we tell ourselves instead of looking at what can be done or the power of the mind playing a role.

I have said it a million times, sport, especially rugby, does not focus on the mental side of the game enough. Eddie out of all the coaches I know, worked very hard on it, but there Is always more players can do themselves or as a team.

I went in and saw training. The detail was there, the energy was there, everything was there. No one in this team should have any regrets because they couldn’t have done more.

There is no entitlement in sport, you don’t get to win because you worked hard or were nice. I suggest the psychological side being and area of improvement because it’s what we all need to work on. You can pick this game apart but there was no magic reason why this final didn’t go our way.

Will Eddie Jones still be there in 2023? I don’t know. I’d love to see four more years of Eddie. I think he’s fantastic. I don’t see anyone else good enough to do what he does. I’ve worked with the best coaches in the world and he’s right at the very top.

Whether he has it in him to go again is another thing. I listened to him speaking last week about how long he took to get over 2003. He’s put so much into these last four years. He’s a 24-hour operator and it’s a big commitment for him to go again.

Some have suggested England played their World Cup final in the semi-final. That is nonsense.

He’s contracted until 2021. There’s talk about having a succession plan with someone working underneath him. Going from one regime to another cold turkey is always difficult. It will be good to retain some of the IP that got England to a World Cup final.

A succession plan can aid that, but it’s a hard thing for a male coach to be subservient to someone. If they can find someone willing to do that, then fine, but that could be tricky.

I am sure Mark McCall wouldn’t want to play second fiddle to Eddie for two years. Would he want to leave Saracens? I don’t know. His methodology could work very well but being England coach is more than just being a coach. It’s the hardest job in world rugby.

All the entrenched old school mentality, fighting with the clubs, the pressure, the media. It’s a pretty horrific job. I have seen coaches go into it thinking its coaching and found out that’s the smallest part of it.

But before any of those decisions are made, I’m sure they’ll find a bar in Tokyo for a few beers and just take a moment to let the dust settle. By god they deserve it.




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