I would start this by saying that there is far from a need to panic at Twickenham – and having seen how Lancaster and company conduct their business, I think they know that too.
However, the shine does seem – even if only for the moment – to be coming off of Lancaster’s creation. I call it a creation because the squad he has moulded holds absolutely no resemblance to the one left behind by his predecessor, Martin Johnson. Only 2 players (Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs) from Johnson’s last starting XV are even in Lancaster’s squad for these Autumn Internationals.
This must go down as an appraisal of the work Stuart Lancaster and his close-knit coaching team (consisting of Andy Farrell, Mike Catt and the formidable Graham Rowntree) have done. The team was in disarray after their infamous trip to New Zealand in 2011 – and not just on the pitch. A series of disciplinary issues had overshadowed their entire Rugby World Cup campaign and the integrity of the team was in question. In came a relatively unknown name in international rugby, and he turned the whole thing on its head. Trouble makers were shipped out and told to shape up if they ever wanted to be considered for selection again. Some (like Danny Care) heeded this and are now at the very core of what Lancaster is building whilst others (like Delon Armitage) have taken the easier Mediterranean option.
Everything seemed rosy. An excellent first Six Nations ended one win short of a Grand Slam and it seemed that Lancaster’s ‘attitude over ego’ policy was allowing England to rise like a triumphant phoenix from the flames of the World Cup shambles. At no point was this more evident than on the 1st of December 2012 when England produced their best performance since the glory days of 2003 to topple the insatiable All Blacks at Twickenham. This was again backed up with a more convincing 4 wins from 5 in the following year’s Six Nations. Lancaster had started to build a squad – his squad.
This squad would then triumph twice against Australia and Argentina in the Autumn before losing to the All Blacks, and agonisingly finish one Gael Fickou moment of magic away from a Grandslam in the Six Nations that following year.
It was at this point that this fresh-faced, revitalised England side would face it’s harshest test to date. Lancaster and his team toured New Zealand this summer to try themselves against the best of the best – in their own back yard. This was to be the real indicator of how far his charges had come in the 2 and a half years they had been at his disposal. They travelled to New Zealand with real optimism, to try and emulate the superiority that the class of 2003 had achieved.
A 3-0 series whitewash in a way told nothing of the real story of the test matches; but at the same time it told everything. England had run the All Blacks close, genuinely making them fear for their unbeaten record, but close was all it ever was.
There was still a sense that it had been a step in the right direction though, that the young England squad would benefit from playing Test matches of such quality and intensity and use the experience of these bitter losses to their advantage the next time they clashed.
And so we come to this Autumn, and by now what was familiar opposition. Again England played valiantly, squeezing every last ounce out of their plucky loser tag, but now found themselves on the wrong end of the harshest of losing streaks. But that is the reality when playing the best: if Lancaster was bothered about statistics he would have toured Argentina again this summer but instead he chose to step into the lions’ den. This was definitely the right choice in the long run, but a victory of some kind was needed to keep the confidence levels where they once were.
The great thing about these Autumn tests is how unrelenting they are: one world class Test match after another. The hectic schedule is great if you’re winning and gaining momentum, but the exact opposite if you’re not. With this weekend’s loss to South Africa, England have now lost 5 out of 5 against the best two teams in the world almost a year to the day before the World Cup final. This is quite a dramatic turnaround from the buzz that has surrounded the team in the last few years. It is almost as if that one victory over the All Blacks carried a period of exemption; a time where being the valiant losers was okay. England fans remembered fondly the humbling of a rugby juggernaut and results weren’t as important in friendlies as making sure the squad was sorted for the World Cup. Well this Autumn series has hit home hard, and all of a sudden the next time England will play either the All Blacks or the Springboks will be at the very stage they have been preparing themselves for.
I started this post with a warning not to get carried away and so I’ll return to that sentiment. Are there reasons for England fans to look forward to the World Cup with anything other than hope? Of course there are. England are missing 7 British and Irish Lions from their squad (Cole, Corbisiero, Vunipola, Youngs, Parling, Croft and Tuilagi) as well as Joe Launchbury who was one of their best players in this year’s Six Nations. Not only will their return undoubtedly turn England into a better team but the exposure of squad players to these games against the top two can only bode well for the future.
In a pack without 6 Lions, England mauled South Africa for two tries from distance. This is a feat against any team, but against the gnarled resistance of the Springboks with their aptitude for the line-out it is absolutely remarkable.
Strength in depth is becoming more and more evident, with Rob Webber, Dave Attwood and Ben Morgan all starring on Saturday. But if everyone was fit, on paper Webber and Attwood wouldn’t be in the 23 and Morgan would only make the bench. These are all encouraging signs for Lancaster and his coaching staff.
The forward pack, however, is not where the remaining issues lie. I’m not sure how much more Danny Cipriani can do to stick his hand up for selection, and I’m also not sure how much more the England back-line can cry out for a player with his invention and imagination to utilise their undoubted talent. I rate Stephen Myler as a fly-half, but to me his spot in the England squad is a wasted one. Lancaster is never going to chuck Myler in with 20 minutes to go in a must win game and say ‘win us this game’ as that is not how Myler plays. Cipriani on the other hand is exactly that player. In my opinion, however harsh this may be on Owen Farrell who has represented England magnificently, either George Ford or Cipriani must start and that would leave the imperious boot of Farrell to come off the bench to close out games.
This is undoubtedly the biggest decision that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff have to make; and in my opinion it is one that will decide how successful they are at the World Cup. Farrell is all well and good against your home nations, but when the heat is turned up against the sterling back rows of the best teams in the world he has been found wanting. And if everything goes as expected and Sam Burgess makes a successful conversion to Union to partner Tuilagi, then England need a fly-half capable of releasing what could be the most frightening centre partnership in world rugby.
It is not inconceivable for England to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and I would still put them third on the list. But Lancaster, having come out of the honeymoon period and used up all the positive vibes from the victory over the All Blacks almost 2 years ago, must now prove he is the coach we all think him to be and mastermind England out of this rut and onto World Cup winning form before it is too late.