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Alastair Hignell: Grounds for cautious optimism after annus horribilis for English rugby

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 28, 2012

Prop Dan Cole (centre) looks like the only sure-fire bet for English representation on the Lions tour to Australia at the end of the season Picture: Julien Behal/PA

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This time last year we had no idea just how thankful we should be. A big Rugby World Cup win over Romania – however laboured – was a little ray of sunshine after the twin horrors of Dwarfgate and the mystery blonde.

To let off steam after a hard-fought victory against Argentina the week before, some of England's players had made drunken fools of themselves after misguidedly deciding to attend a "mad Midget Weekender" at a well-known watering-hole in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Mike Tindall, newly married into the Royal family, was caught on closed circuit television canoodling with an unknown woman. As the world's media held several field days at once, England's players responded in the best way they could – on the field – and just for a while the furore seemed about to die down.

But it was a false dawn. There was an awful lot more darkness to come. A return to rotten rugby – against Scotland and then France – and more acts of off-field lunacy – sexual harassment of a chamber-maid, an illegal dive from an Auckland ferry – were to make a laughing-stock of England's finest.

Then there was the leaked dossier detailing a complete breakdown of trust between the players, their coaches and just about everyone else who came into their orbit, the resignation of England manager Martin Johnson, the power struggles, the mud-slinging and the blood-letting at the RFU, and a mass clear-out of the old playing guard by a new coach, Stuart Lancaster.

Of the 30 players that Martin Johnson took to the World Cup just over a year ago, only 13 remained when Lancaster named a 32-man elite squad in July Given that Alex Corbisiero, Tom Croft and Ben Youngs are on the long-term injury-list and that Ben Foden will definitely miss the autumn internationals, the turnover in the England ranks is astonishing.

Some of the old guard were going anyway – Tindall, Jonny Wilkinson, Simon Shaw, Lewis Moody and Steve Thompson were always likely to opt for honourable retirement before too long, while the likes of Lee Mears, Mark Cueto and Shontayne Hape have almost certainly jumped before they were pushed.

The jury is still out as to whether the rest of the restructuring represents change for change's sake or the green shoots of recovery. Exponents of the latter line of argument can point to an improved Six Nations' showing last Spring – after laboured wins over Scotland and Italy, England ran champions Wales close and beat Ireland and France convincingly – and a spirited third Test on tour to South Africa in the summer – although they had already lost the series, England recaptured some pride with a battling draw in the final match.

The unconvinced can point to the fact that few if any of England's bright young things of a year ago have made anything like the progress expected of them. Youngs lost form so disastrously that he was dropped by England before the Six Nations was out. Ashton and Manu Tuilagi also failed to build on the outstanding promise of their early appearances, while Courtney Lawes was suspended for ill-discipline during the World Cup and sidelined by injury ever since.

The only one who has made solid, if unspectacular progress is the solid but unspectacular Leicester prop Dan Cole. At this distance, he looks like the only sure-fire bet for English representation on the Lions tour to Australia at the end of the season.

The rest – even inspirational captain Chris Robshaw – have a lot of work to do, and a lot of in-form rivals to see off, if they are to make the plane. If they don't, there will be fewer Englishmen on a Lions tour than at any time since the grim old days of the late seventies and early eighties.

But at least, and unlike a year ago, it would appear that the only way is up. Just as those caught up in that downward spiral had no idea how bad it was going to become, so those embarked on what all England fans hope is an upward trajectory have no idea how good it can get.

That's the beauty of sport. It has an endless capacity to surprise as well as to disappoint and to delight. Even though the RFU has not sorted itself out yet, even though Premier Rugby appears to have shot itself in the foot, at least there are some grounds for cautious optimism.

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