Nick Cain: Don’t believe the spin, we still have long way to go

Ben MorganIf the mission statement of Clive Woodward’s 2003 world champion outfit was, “To Be The Best”, then the one that comes most readily to mind with the Stuart Lancaster squad which has just returned from South Africa with two defeats and a draw is, “It’s OK To Be Average”.
England are not easybeats, they are hard-working and dogged, they have team-spirit and they play for each other, and for Lancaster and his coaching team. But let’s cut through the relentlessly upbeat RFU spin surrounding the Lancaster “revival” and see things for what they are, rather than through rose-tinted lenses.
Given the results in the Southern Hemisphere this summer, the only objective conclusion is that the while the 2012 Six Nations was competitive, it was also average in terms of the calibre of the teams involved, and, that England, who finished second, were worthy battlers but, in most respects, ordinary.
That appraisal gained further credence over the course of last month’s summer tour of South Africa when, in three attempts, Lancaster’s side failed to take a Test off a Springbok team that was itself more a work in progress than the finished article.
Lancaster can tell us as much as he likes how much better the team is for the experience, Graham Rowntree (forwards coach) can wax lyrical about the talent coming through, and Mike Catt (acting backs coach) can put forward the opinion that Lancaster has done more in his first six months as head honcho than Woodward did in his first three years, but it merits being treated as nothing other than propaganda until England start to beat Southern Hemisphere sides again regularly.
There were plusses to come from the series in South Africa, especially the way that Manu Tuilagi adapted to inside centre in the third Test, and a growing rivalry between Ben Youngs and Danny Care which will keep both scrum-halves on their toes. However, allowing those gains to obscure just how much further this England side has to travel before it can be considered good, let alone world class, would be doing a dis-service to all the stakeholders in English rugby.
The Woodward years that interest me most are those from 2000 to the 2003 World Cup, and I suggest that they are the most pertinent to Lancaster’s regime, rather than the first three years earmarked by Catt. In those four seasons, starting with the drawn 2000 summer series in South Africa, England not only dominated Southern Hemisphere opposition, but the world champion side started to take shape rapidly.
It is Lancaster’s remit to develop another world champion side over the three-year period from now until the 2015 World Cup, and, so far, the building blocks are either not cemented in, or not there at all. That is why, for all the positive spin about the tour, with the RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie taking his place on the podium at the post-tour press conference at the team hotel overlooking Nelson Mandela Bay, Lancaster was still confronted by more questions than answers as he took the long flight from Port Elizabeth back to Leeds.
Despite Ritchie’s declaration: “It’s clear to us how together the touring party has been,” the bottom line is that the head coach has to get an intensive revision plan in place if England are to get any pass marks in their three big Southern Hemisphere examinations in the autumn.
Top of the list of nagging concerns is where is Lancaster going to find the world-class players with the firepower to out-shoot the southern storm-troopers? Where is England’s next inspirational fly-half general going to come from? Where have all the tight-heads gone, with Dan Cole now almost a stand-alone option? How does he power-up his second row, and what must he do to create a balanced back-row? Can his Test team matrix include Ben Foden, Mike Brown and Alex Goode together in the back three?
However, if Lancaster harbours concerns in any of those areas they are not yet for public consumption, and the head coach was quite content to accentuate the positives rather than hold forth on the real job of team-building that faces him. Instead, what we were presented with was an England camp clearly boosted by the draw in the final test – and with it came an unmistakeable whiff of wishful thinking.
For instance, there is a sense the head coach’s championing of the new team environment is starting to be overplayed. When Lancaster reflected that the all-for-one attitude was there when the non-playing 22 presented the side with their shirts before the third Test – “Chris Robshaw gave the shirt and the captaincy to Dylan Hartley, and Ben Morgan gave the No.8 shirt he lost to Thomas Waldrom, and that takes some doing” – the anecdote seemed laden with as much spin as substance. Hartley is a player who reflects many of the anomalies in Lancaster’s squad. No-one can question the Northampton hooker’s commitment, but how did the coach come to the conclusion that a player who had just squeezed into the tour party after an eight-week ban for biting was the right choice as stand-in captain? The flaws in that call were highlighted when Hartley got himself sin-binned at a crucial point in the third Test for blatantly killing the ball, and England were fortunate not to be whitewashed as a result of his indiscipline.
Question 1:
Is Hartley good enough to be an automatic Test incumbent. He has shown he is a good, rugged club hooker, but is he, or can he be, more than that? Although he does the nuts and bolts scrummaging and throwing-in solidly he does not excel in either area, and as a carrier or tackler he is not in the same bracket as Bismarck du Plessis, Keven Mealamu, Stephen Moore, William Servat, Rory Best or Matthew Rees.
Hartley may improve to become true Test class and make the No.2 shirt his own, but if England are serious about winning the 2015 World Cup they have to raise the bar much higher than it is, not just at hooker but throughout the team. That is why, with the series already lost, it was so disappointing that having picked a tour bolter in Tom Youngs, Lancaster did not back his judgment and put the explosive Leicester hooker on the bench for the second or third Tests.
If Lancaster believes Tom Youngs is his likely 2015 hooker, he missed a trick – and that was something that became glaringly obvious when, no sooner had the England squad stepped off the plane at Heathrow, than the England coach announced that the veterans Lee Mears and Charlie Hodgson would not be included in the new 64-man England EPS contingent. For the record, Mears kept Youngs off the bench for all three Tests.
Question 2:
Is Alex Goode the answer to England’s No.10 dilemma? Hodgson’s inclusion for a couple of midweek run-outs precluded Lancaster and Catt having a closer look at the quickest fly-half in England, and possibly Europe, Gloucester’s Freddie Burns.
In the interim the biggest irony is that the player who looks to have the right cocktail of flair, elusiveness, and a cool head under fire to be England’s fly-half is Alex Goode. It is typical of the skewed lines that often occur in English rugby that Goode, who played fly-half throughout the age groups and for the England U20s, was shunted to full-back by Saracens two seasons ago after a brief experiment at No.10.
It is time that experiment was revisited, because he looks capable of becoming every bit as much of an international fly-half as either Toby Flood or Owen Farrell, and England have to get as many of their best footballers onto the pitch as possible.
In terms of new personnel the EPS group to be announced next week should only include players that Lancaster is convinced are capable of reaching the heightened standards required if England are to have a realistic chance of winning in 2015. At the moment the hooking berth is wide open, and the lack of depth at tight-head behind the Cole is a grave concern.
Question 3:
Where are our props coming from? A great deal of hope is being heaped on the young shoulders of Sale’s potentially exceptional Henry Thomas – who is returning from a knee ligament injury – but it requires decisive action from Rowntree in such a crucial position. Other options include switching Alex Corbisiero to tight-head – mainly on the basis that England are well blessed for the loose-heads, with Thomas’s former England U20 partner, Mako Vunipola, one to watch – or fast-tracking Kyle Sinckler, the current England U20 incumbent.
Question 4:
Where is a strongman lock? The absence of such a player is another shortfall, and Lancaster desperately needs a lock with the physical attributes of a Dave Attwood to put his hand up at club level so that Tom Palmer does not have the second row field to himself as a partner for a lighter, athlete lock such as Courtney Lawes or Jeff Parling.
Question 5:
How will he address the imbalance in the back-row? England need the introduction of a genuine openside ball-winner and carrier, although, until a youngster like Matt Kvesic, Andy Saull or Luke Wallace makes a big enough noise, Chris Robshaw deserves to hold sway. The other challenger is likely to be Tom Wood, although, like Robshaw, his natural position is blindside or No.8. If Lancaster does eventually unearth a genuine openside, with Kvesic earmarked for it, the competition at blindside, with Tom Croft, Wood, Robshaw and Carl Fearns all in the mix, will be fierce.
My view is that it would also be a big mistake to jettison Ben Morgan at No.8 because he failed to make a dramatic impact at high altitude. In conditioning terms Morgan has already made marathon gains, and it is up to the conditioning staff at Gloucester and England to ensure that he takes the final crucial steps to the Test match summit, because as a back-row carrier there is no one as effective.
Lancaster said in his summing up in Port Elizabeth that the biggest weapon that he has is the power of selection, and creating a culture in which no player has a divine right to play for England. The same can be said of coaching England.
Lancaster has made a decent start as a selector and group strategist, but he can improve, too, not just in selection but also as a tactician. For example, his inexperience as a coach was revealed also by the late realisation that England needed to employ two-man tackles in order to stop the Springbok forward juggernaut – by which time it had already rolled over them in two Tests. In terms of selection, taking Mears and Hodgson to South Africa was a duff call, as was failing to blood Tom Youngs at Test level, and (initially) leaving behind a flier of Jonny May’s potential.
It is time for everyone involved with England to raise their game this season, or winning in 2015 will be a pipe dream.

Leave a Comment