England may have beaten a Samoa side 28-9 on the weekend, securing their first victory of the autumn internationals and their first test win since March but their victory was not a convincing one. Whether or not this series is seen as a failure will depend on how Lancaster’s men fair against a struggling Australian side. For the first time in his tenure as England head coach, Lancaster finds himself under fire and under pressure.
When you look back on Lancaster’s coaching history at the top level this is the first time he has faced real pressure of any sort. Lancaster took his first big role at Leeds Carnegie, he took over a side that had just been relegated to the championship in 2006, they lost key players such as Ian Balshaw, Tom Palmer and Gordon Bulloch and he had to start from scratch, much like when he took over the England job. Carnegie having lost so many key heads were not expecting such a quick return to the top league, however they secured promotion at their first attempt, winning the league with two games to spare. Lancaster’s team were relegated from the Premiership the following season in 2008 having lost a total of 19 out of a possible 22 matches, his young squad was too inexperienced and written off from the start.
In May 2008 Lancaster was appointed ‘head of elite player development’ by Rob Andrew and the RFU, his job description was to be directly responsible for all the administration and elite player development processes, which help identify young talent from the age of 13. He was also to be responsible for the overall management of the Under-18, Under-20, Sevens and England Saxons representative sides. A few months later Martin Johnson was appointed the team manager of the England senior team. Following a difficult World Cup in 2011 Lancaster was promoted to temporary or ‘interim’ head coach following Johnson’s resignation after the tournament. Following an impressive Six Nations during which Lancaster exiled players aged 30 plus and brought in the likes of Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and Ben Morgan for their first caps he was given the job for a permanent capacity.
With such a young squad and new coaching staff, the team was given time by the public and performances were impressive. A victory over the All Blacks in the autumn of 2012 gave Lancaster some credit in the bank off the back of some struggling performances against Australia and a team Lancaster has never beaten, South Africa. That victory took the heat off Lancaster and now in 2014 we find ourselves in a very similar position, nothing but a victory against the Aussies will do.
One thing Lancaster has often been praised for has been his selection policy, however after a difficult summer and a struggling autumn he is now coming under fire for his decisions. The absence of David Strettle from the squad completely is a mystery, he is the best winger in the premiership bar George North and one of the best in Europe at the minute. Strettle has experience and an ability to finish off chances, something that England are seemingly struggling to do at the moment, he is also used to playing outside the favoured Farrell and Barritt.
However the selection of Farrell is also being questioned by the fans, the guy had just come back from injury for his club and thrown straight in against the All Blacks. Many would’ve liked to see George Ford or even Danny Cipriani, who is not even in the squad, given a shot with maybe Farrell eased back in off the bench. Farrell has not been able to find his form following injury and it is very harsh on someone like Ford who has been picking up ‘man of the match’ awards all season at the rec. To then pick Farrell at 12 against Samoa must also be very uncomfortable for Kyle Eastmond and Billy Twelvetrees to watch. I presume Farrell was picked as a kicking and distributing 12, however he is not as good at distributing as Eastmond or Twelvetrees and there was a distinct lack of kicking from the England backline. Not too many England fans will say that they liked viewing Owen Farrell at inside centre last Saturday.
The inclusion of Brad Barritt at 13 is another odd decision, he is not an outside centre, he lacks pace and imagination and is a defensive selection. Picking Barritt at 13 sends a message out that you don’t want to lose by too much rather than trying to win the game by choosing someone like Jonathan Joseph. Joseph has not been given a sniff this autumn, much to the annoyance of many England fans, Lancaster gave Joseph his first few caps and in the absence of Tuilangi and Burrell surely Joseph deserves his chance in the 13 shirt. After a string of incredible performances for Bath this season and his defence much improved combined with his unbelievable natural attacking talent he must feel hard done by, if he was Scottish, Irish or Welsh he would’ve been playing this autumn. The fact he hasn’t even been invited to train with the squad ahead of their clash with Australia is nothing short of a joke. Lancaster has also released Danny Care, Kyle Eastmond and Semesa Rokoduguni back to Harlequins and Bath ahead of their Friday night clash. Eastmond and Rokoduguni’s departure is mind boggling, Eastmond impressed in the first two games but struggled in-between the out of form Farrell and the out of position Barritt. Rokoduguni was only given one shot against the All Blacks but now fit again he should be in the squad ahead of the unimpressive Marland Yarde. It is very harsh to drop a player who has worked so hard to get his first cap and kept the mightily impressive Julien Savea quiet at Twickenham, unfortunately far too few England wingers can say that they’ve done that.
Of course had England had a fully fit squad this autumn it could’ve turned out very differently, world class players like Corbisiero, Cole, Launchberry, Parling, Croft and Tuilangi are going to make a difference to any side. Credit to Lancaster who over the last 3 seasons has developed Englands player stocks and in every position there is now good competition. You could argue a strong case that England now possess best strength in depth in the world aside from New Zealand who seem to find gems wherever they look.
This has not been the autumn Lancaster and his coaching team would’ve hoped for and it all boils down to the final clash at Twickenham on Saturday. If England lose to Australia it sets them up poorly for the Six Nations, debates over who should play at 10, 12 and 13 will continue and the exclusion of the likes of Cipriani, Eastmond and Joseph may look foolish. Having just handed out long term contacts to Stuart Lancaster and his coaching staff the RFU must be in a very uncomfortable position, another poor World Cup showing and on home soil will surely force them to re-evaluate who they want in charge. In 2011 England decided against an experienced coach, turning down Nick Mallett and Jake White in favour of an inexperienced coach in Lancaster on the basis he had worked with developing many of these players in their youth, but can he now handle them on big stage when inexperience is no longer an excuse.