Nick Cain: Lancaster must pick his diamonds now

Stuart Lancaster appears to have taken it as a given that he will be England head coach until his contract ends in January 2016. However, because of what he knows – as a performance department insider – about the RFU’s track record in hiring and firing coaches, it would be surprising if privately he wasn’t more circumspect.
The 2-0 summer series defeat by South Africa has rubbed some of the gloss off the second place Lancaster achieved in his first Six Nations campaign, and the arrival of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand at Twickenham this autumn will reveal more about whether he has the selection skills, as well as coaching ability and strategy, to win the 2015 World Cup.
It would help if Lancaster’s squad lost their inferiority complex against Southern Hemisphere opposition and backed themselves to start winning again on home soil, repaying the Twickenham crowd for their support despite the uninspired mediocrity they have often had to put up with over the past decade. England have lost their last five home Tests against New Zealand, and their last three home Tests to South Africa and Australia.
If losing at home is unacceptable to the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies then surely an England team aspiring to be the next world champions have to put down their marker right now, turning their own ground into an impregnable stronghold. Although it is unlikely that Ian Ritchie will do so, the RFU’s chief executive should make it clear that two wins out of three against the SANZAR nations is the goal this autumn – and that if the New Zealand scalp cannot be taken this time, then at least the All Blacks should be hustled out of their imperious stride.
However, instead of talking about going for gold like Team GB, and being winners, Ritchie has remained quiet while Lancaster has hedged his bets, saying, “We have a World Cup in England in three year’s time and we’re expected, and should be expected, to do very well in it.”
Doing “very well” could be bronze, and it is hard to understand why, if you want to win something, you should be afraid in a pro sport to state your ambition.
Lancaster also talked about England’s quest for world-class players, as in those who are among the top three in their position in the world.  “We need players with stardust. We need players who can turn a game, and win it, with one flash of world-class star quality.” His response to whether England had any players of that calibre now was: “We need to give a few diamonds a good polish.”
CartoonIn other words, there aren’t any. Giving diamond players a polish is an area in which English rugby, the Woodward era apart, has not excelled. Compared to the SANZAR nations, the RFU and the Premiership clubs have been off the pace when it comes to honing skills or athletic ability, correcting weaknesses, working out which position suits a player best, mentoring, or nurturing U20 starlets to become full international stars.
Can the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph take the next step to become Lions, or world class, by the end of this season – and, more significantly, is there enough English coaching and conditioning expertise to get them there?
It is a tall order, but one that any England incumbent or hopeful will have to rise to according to Lancaster. “We’ve one year left to get things up to speed. That will be the end of the development stage and the start of our countdown to the World Cup. I’d like two years of a settled team.”
By revealing his strategy for the next three years Lancaster has turned up the heat on his players, but his plan raises important questions. His current squad is relatively settled and competitive at Test level, but, so far, it lacks world class results and world class players.
The conundrum the head coach will be faced with if those players, and results, do not emerge by the end of 2013 is whether he opts for a settled squad of the solid and unspectacular at the expense of form players who make their run too late to make his two year cut-off point.
My view is that two years is a luxury he cannot afford. Lancaster should use this season to weed out anyone who is more of a club player than a Test animal from his 64-man EPS and Saxons contingents, on the basis that if they cannot raise their game consistently in a Lions season they are struggling. He should identify five players he believes are closest to world class and hot-house them this year, and do the same for the next 10 with the intention of lifting them from being solid to very good.
With those 15 established as the standard bearers, and others raising their game and becoming regulars, the rest of the squad should be fluid and compete for the remaining places until six months before the 2015 World Cup. That way form remains the key selection criterion, and you leave the door open to late world class arrivals – with New Zealand’s brilliant young full-back Israel Dagg, who made his All Black debut less than a year before becoming a 2011 World Cup-winner, a case in point.

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