Humble England still want to humble us


SIX NATIONS:Lancaster/Robshaw a winning ticket if Ireland give them half a chance

Humble England cometh. Lacking the arrogance of yesteryear, Stuart Lancaster’s men can no longer be associated with the childish “banter” that punctuated the fly-on-the-wall “video cam” footage during the disastrous 2011 World Cup campaign.

Less scandal, more coherence, with a highly-flexible game plan, this is not the England the Irish love to hate.

There is less James Haskell and Dylan Hartley, more Chris Robshaw and Tom Youngs.

One thing remains the same: a hulking pack of English forwards are coming to try and lay waste to Ireland’s Grand Slam aspirations.

It gets worse. This feels like a watershed moment for Lancaster’s England.

They rapidly digested the lessons inflicted upon them by the Springboks last year to crush the, albeit drained, All Blacks on December 1st.

Stripping everything down, it’s the Lancaster/Robshaw leadership ticket that has altered the traditional perception of arrogant England.

“I really like Stuart because there is not even a trace of ego,” said Conor O’Shea, Harlequins’ director of rugby, who is also extremely close to Robshaw.

O’Shea has a great relationship with Lancaster going back to the former’s RFU days.

“He’s unbelievably hard working, he’s very passionate and comes from a part of the world [Cumbria] where they are just naturally like that.

“Chris is the same. So in both captain and coach you got two guys who are confident in their ability but won’t get ahead of themselves. They know what is coming from Ireland.”

Both Lancaster and Robshaw initially seemed like stop gaps until a more established coach and captain partnership could be unearthed. But thumping New Zealand 38-21 was confirmation that England have left port on a voyage to conquer the world by 2015, with this pair at the helm (Remember, that tournament will revolve around Twickenham).

They very nearly sank a few miles out to sea. Defeat to Australia in November was a jolt but Robshaw’s leadership qualities came under scrutiny when he instructed Owen Farrell to kick three points when trailing by four points with just over a minute remaining against South Africa.

They were unable to secure the re-start and time ran out.

“I rang him after that match and said, ‘Forget about that decision, you were absolutely magnificent as a rugby player and that’s what you were there for’,” said O’Shea. “He was incredible that day. When people calmed down they realised he was the top tackler, the top carrier and was still learning on the job.

“Just like Ireland’s brilliant performance against Argentina, beating New Zealand gave England time to grow and evolve.”

Disastrous world cup

Lancaster’s pathway to the job was out of the ashes of a muddled and disastrous 2011 world cup campaign, led by Martin Johnson, when players anonymously slated the coaching ticket – except for Graham Rowntree – in the messy aftermath.

All that information was leaked to the London Times.

The RFU director of operations, Rob Andrew, appointed Lancaster, a former Scotland underage flanker, as the newly invented elite rugby director in 2008. He had been Leeds head coach for two seasons.

However, the top England role, on a permanent basis, was only offered after the Irish scrum was destroyed at Twickenham last March.

“Stuart’s a level five qualified coach and there is not many of them,” O’Shea explained. “He has an unbelievable thirst for knowledge. I first came across him playing for London Irish against Leeds in a cup match in 1996.

“He became the Academy manager at Leeds , setting up the best structure in the country, it was brilliant the way he had it set up.”

O’Shea saw this first hand as, at the time, he was the RFU director of regional academies.

“His way was the example of how to do the job and at the time Leeds weren’t even a Premiership side. So they hadn’t the calling card but he made everything work. I put it down mostly to pure hard work.

“To be honest, at times someone has to save Stuart from himself because he works ridiculously hard. He’ll text you within an hour of a match being finished with an update of your player’s condition.”

The 2003 England team ticked so many boxes but one in particular that gets increasingly mentioned as time marches on is their quiet leaders.

The 2015 version appears to have similar traits. For Richard Hill then, see Tom Wood now, the brilliant Northampton flanker with the flexibility to plug the hole vacated by injured number eight Ben Morgan tomorrow. For Jonny Wilkinson see Owen Farrell as the new kicking machine.

Also, as with Clive Woodward’s group, a powerful Leicester Tigers base is evident. Geoff Parling runs both lineouts, Ben Youngs is a livewire at scrumhalf, while Dan Cole anchors the scrum.

At 25, Cole has matured to such an extent that Marco Castrogiovanni has become the Tigers’ back-up tighthead for the big European games.

But this is not Leicester’s England, it is the Premiership’s England, Lancaster’s England.

Saracens (Farrell, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Brad Barritt), Wasps (Joe Launchbury and Haskell), Northampton (Hartley and Wood) and champions Harlequins (Mike Brown, Danny Care, Joe Marler and Robshaw) ensure the major clubs are well represented.

Run the rule

All told, it makes Leicester club captain Geordan Murphy well placed to run the rule over the eight current, or former clubmates on tomorrow’s 23 – Billy Twelvetrees moved from Leicester to Gloucester last year.

“The All Blacks didn’t really know what hit them,” said Murphy. “England played a stifling game; they kicked the ball, chased well, but it was a couple of moments of individual brilliance that turned that game.

“They got three tries really from nothing, they ground it out and put the All Blacks under a lot of pressure.

“I thought that would be their template for the Six Nations – boring rugby, kick the corners and grind it out with a big pack – but against Scotland they came out and played offloading rugby, scoring some good tries.

“But I think they will go back to the game that beat New Zealand against Ireland. They will kick a lot and go after three- pointers.”

Murphy sees Twelvetrees, retained despite Manu Tuilagi’s return from injury, as a potential Achilles’ heel.

“I’d like to see Billy get tested in the midfield.

“The stats indicate that England score twice as many points with Manu in the side then they do without him. He was effectively the reason they beat the All Blacks. The intercept, his offloading and making breaks for fun against a centre partnership of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.

“When Billy’s got time and space he looks very comfortable. When time and space isn’t there he is more inclined to go himself.”

If that’s the case then he is about to be introduced to the choke tackle, Ireland’s signature move in defence.

England are only too aware of the tactic: the Irish heavies holding up a lone runner, ideally in no man’s land, forcing a turnover more often than not.

Welsh lock Ian Evans was the latest victim, last Saturday, trying to charge out of his 22 only to be greeted by the loving embrace of Mike McCarthy, Seán O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan. All stayed upright and glared at Monsieur Poite. When the French referee yelled “maul” the three trio fell to earth, with Evans trapped under the rubble.

Scrum to Ireland in a perfect position.

Choke tackle

“The choke tackle is the opposite to what we try to do,” said Brad Barritt this week. “We try to get people on the deck, (Ireland) hold the guy up, prevent him from going forward, that causes a maul and when it collapses the players don’t have to roll away so it is very difficult for the attacking team to get the ball back.”

However, Lancaster has been simulating this very situation ad nauseam at training in Pennyhill.

“When you are the ball-carrier and feel yourself losing momentum and being held up it’s important to rip that shoulder, really try to wrestle yourself free and get to ground and place that ball knowing your team-mates will be there,” said fullback Alex Goode.

“It’s a tactic that has worked very well for (Ireland) and something we’ve done a lot of work on this week.”

We feel a nail-biter coming on.

“The big thing for Ireland is Mike Ross going well,” O’Shea added. “Granted, there is a tighthead on the bench but Mike is pretty important.”

Murphy concurred but he does see a light: “Yeh, scrum, breakdown and Sexton versus Farrell with Ireland to win by four or five points.”

Of course, don’t believe anything written here about humility. It is still England. Haskell and Hartley will, at some stage, be in the thick of it, attempting to mince any and all green jerseys in their path.

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