Selection can be the difference between a great manager, and a good manager, and it is starting to dawn on me that maybe Lancaster is only a good manager. At the start of his reign his selection was very pleasing, sensible and despite the lack of real attacking quality managed to have a very successful starting Six Nations. Over the last two years however, England have hit a stunt in development. These however where always covered up by a couple of decent performances. In 2012 England lost to South Africa and Australia two weeks on the trot, but no one seemed too bothered about that when they convincingly beat Australia.
In 2013 Wales demolished England on what was supposed to be there first Grand Slam in 10 years, but after a relatively successful Autumn with a win against Australia and a close game with New Zealand, it seemed like England were back on track. Then in 2014 England had their most successful Six Nations since Lancaster first took over with only a disappointing, but unlucky, defeat to France preventing them from taking the Grand Slam, once more. Since then England have lost 5 times in a row. This is a very misleading stat, with 3 of those losses coming against New Zealand in New Zealand, the best team in the most challenging place to play them, and the other two coming against number 1 and 2 in the world. Despite this many people including me are starting to doubt England, for me though the problem isn’t the team, it’s the selection. Lancaster, for me, lacks daring and seems to be trying not to lose rather than to win.
When Lancaster first took over I felt he was bringing a very similar type of coaching to the style used by England’s only World Cup winning manager, Sir Clive Woodward. He wasn’t afraid to drop anyone, and all his selections were very similar to what I wanted, and what most of the public thought was best. In recent times what I want and what Lancaster chooses have begun to vary. For example, it has taken him far too long to drop Ashton, undoubtedly a world class finisher but lacking the defensive capabilities for an International squad. In both of England’s matches against New Zealand and South Africa this Autumn I have disagreed with Lancaster’s selections in two areas. Firstly, in both I believe Wood should have been dropped and Haskell should have come in. England in both games has lacked physicality, and ball carrying ability. Haskell brings both of these and I believe has a greater impact at the breakdown. He has also shown in recent appearances for Wasps he has tremendous fitness and work rate, so England wouldn’t lose anything in that department.
Secondly, Brad Barritt despite being a very strong defensive player doesn’t provide England with as many attacking options as Jonathon Joseph, and hasn’t linked up well with Kyle Eastmond. I said before the New Zealand game, that Barritt was the safe option, but Joseph was the brave option. In both Lancaster has chosen Barritt, and I think it has backfired. In both games England conceded 3 tries, and scored 2 against New Zealand, and 3 against South Africa. Only 2 of these tries have come through backs, May’s fantastic individual try, and Barritt’s walk in, which whilst well finished by England, could have been finished by anyone.
These changes though, may have proved to make little difference, and England finished only 3 points behind in each game, and we couldn’t afford to lose to either team by more than one score, so Lancaster can be forgiven for being cautious, and maybe Eastmond and Joseph wouldn’t have been strong enough defensively against New Zealand and South Africa. However, my biggest problem comes from his selection for Saturday’s match against Samoa.
England’s pack isn’t a major problem. England have developed a pack that can mix it and gain at least parity with any team in the world, and you can pick from around 15 players who will be able to put in a world class forward performance. However, there is still much uncertainty in the backs, yet Lancaster in a game that, no disrespect to Samoa, is already won hasn’t given players like Joseph a chance to shine, but rather has been cautious once more. Before I criticise him, I want to congratulate him on the selection of Haskell, Morgan, Youngs and Ford who all deserve a chance to start a test match and push for their place in the squad. But at Ford the congratulations stop.
Farrell at 12 is utter madness, Farrell is a very good 10 when in form, but will never be a world class 12. When England will soon hopefully be picking from the likes of Eastmond, Burrell, Tuilagi and Burgess to name a few, Farrell has no chance of being a long term option. Henry Slade can play at 12 as does Billy Twelvetrees, both who deserve at least one (more in Twelvetrees case) to prove themselves in the build up to next year’s World Cup, but now will not get one. At 13 he has chosen Barritt again, who again is a good player, but what about the likes of Joseph, fit again Burrell or even Slade (again) who have all been in exceptional form in their last few games, and could add another dimension to England’s game and should be in contention for next year’s world cup.
Finally the back three, Watson deserves another go after not getting much of a chance against South Africa, but Jonny May should have been rested. England have other options on the wing who deserve a go, Yarde is a fantastic winger when in form and shouldn’t be on the bench, Strettle, Ashton, and Wade all are pushing for the England squad, but are being left out whilst Jonny May is getting another chance. And at fullback Mike Brown has been fantastic for England in the past year or so, but is currently in a poor patch form wise and could do with a week’s rest whilst maybe Goode or Foden could have a game.
I do feel badly for Lancaster, as injuries have prevented him from keeping any consistency in the squad; however his latest England selection is madness. Lancaster feels he has 80% of his squad decided for the World Cup next year, yet refuses to give chances to players in fantastic form in the premiership. He has lost the fearlessness to drop players who are in bad form, and seems to have decided that players such as Wood, Robshaw, Farrell and Brown are un-droppable but Farrell had a stinker against South Africa, and Ford looked the experienced one coming off the bench. A recent tweet from Sir Clive Woodward made me question Lancaster’s selections saying “no right or wrong in selection, win you are right- lose means a very long week.”
Lancaster has now lost 5 on the trot, and whilst I have no doubt that run will stop against Samoa I cannot understand why he won’t experiment with other players. Now England’s World Cup hopes may be resting on one of two things, Tuilagi and Burrell both staying fit and forming a world class centre partnership, or Sam Burgess becoming everything everyone expects of him and more, and saving England. Lancaster’s testing time is running out, and in less than a year he faces the hardest group in World Cup history, let’s hope he manages to find something more inventive than Farrell and Barritt as a centre partnership before then.