No-nonsense Lancaster has England in rude health
The outstanding win over the All Blacks in November shows the potential lurking in a talented England squad
Poor behaviour at the 2011 World Cup and claims of English arrogance are firmly in the past. Stuart Lancaster, as people expected him to do, stripped away the England supremacist views and replaced them with humility and a work ethic that has already paid dividends.
England may look at four-year cycles and see the Six Nations through a different prism to that of Ireland but Lancaster and his new breed of England youngsters have already registered an outstanding 38-21 win over the All Blacks in November and go into the championship rightly fearless and looking to build further momentum.
Down to 14 players for the end of the New Zealand match, Lancaster has done a fine job in rebuilding England from the bottom up and has shaped a team who play for each other. But the coach is not about to be blinded by just one win.
“We have got to make sure we back it up now,” he said in November. “As a coaching team we’re far too pragmatic (to allow anyone to think we are the finished article) — and I’m far too Cumbrian to allow that to happen. I’m already thinking how we’re going to plan for the pre-Six Nations camp in Leeds and how we’re going to maintain this standard.”
If you’re English that should be comforting. But now Lancaster’s job is to manage expectations.
From World Cup downbeats to the toast of Twickenham, the coach recently invited Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis and Ashes-winning cricket captain Andrew Strauss to the team hotel, presumably to tell them that while their second title in a decade is within their grasp they have to go out and win it first.
Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and former England footballer Gary Neville have also paid visits over the last 12 months.
Now there is a strongly positive sense of direction about England and while the squad has names people may not have seen before, rest assured that they are there on merit as there are no longer any sinecures. Lancaster has placed a premium on form.
But he also has some injuries to consider, which may involve some tinkering.
Most recently Exeter flanker Tom Johnson and London Irish prop Alex Corbisiero(who looked set to start) were ruled out of the championship, while Gloucester outhalf, Freddie Burns, will also miss least the first two matches against Scotland and Ireland.
Lancaster has also lost Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi. Given his potential for destruction and the big shift he put in against the All Blacks (scored a try and set up two) the hole at 13 where the Anglo-Samoan Leicester Tiger normally resides will be probably vacant for the first two matches.
The absence of Johnson, who is facing three months out after injuring his knee in the Heineken Cup against Leinster, deprives England of back-row cover when they are already without flankers Calum Clark and Tom Croft.
But Ben Foden (ankle) and Alex Goode (shoulder) are both back and trying to get fit which is a pleasant headache at fullback. But Lancaster must also sort out the backline combination and decide how to use Owen Farrell and Toby Flood. Farrell recently kicked 11 from 11 for Saracens.
There are also different options in the centre. Brad Barritt could play at 12 and Jonathan Joseph at 13, or, Billy Twelvetrees could slot in at 12 and Barritt outside him. Danny Care is also battling for the number nine jersey with Ben Youngs.
In all, England are dangerous and in harness regardless of the permutations.
Six Nations pointers
The win over the All Blacks last year is where England would like all to know is their rightful place in the world order. That to overlook the defeats to South Africa and Australia that preceded the win. But England’s discovery of humility has helped their cause and Lancaster’s trend in picking form players has allowed the rose to blossom.Piano Shifter
Dylan Hartley or Leicester’s Tom Youngs, who will play. Even if Youngs gets the nod for the first match, Hartley is back from injury and eager. Volatile, he’s probably one red card away from never playing for England again but the hooker is always a thorn in the opposition side. England pride themselves on scrums where war horses like Hartley thrive.
Owen Farrell kicked 17 points in England’s improbable 38-21 victory over the All Blacks at the end of last year and he has continued that same match-winning form for Saracens. Against Racing Metro, he scored 32 points from 11 kicks and he is in pole position to be England’s starting outhalf. He’s fire and ice and young. At 21-years-old he’s also a talent that can shape Test matches.
England Squad:Chris Ashton (Saracens) Brad Barritt (Saracens) Mouritz Botha (Saracens) Mike Brown (Harlequins) Danny Care (Harlequins) Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers) Lee Dickson (Northampton Saints) Owen Farrell (Saracens) Toby Flood (Leicester Tigers) Ben Foden (Northampton Saints) Alex Goode (Saracens) Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints) James Haskell (London Wasps) Jonathan Joseph (London Irish) Matt Kvesic (Worcester Warriors) Joe Launchbury (London Wasps) Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints) Joe Marler (Harlequins) Ugo Monye (Harlequins) Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby) Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers) Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) David Strettle (Saracens) Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks) Manusamoa Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers) Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby) Billy Vunipola (London Wasps) Mako Vunipola (Saracens) Thomas Waldrom (Leicester Tigers) David Wilson (Bath Rugby) Tom Wood (Northampton Saints) Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers) Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers)