An apparently wise man once declared with complete certainty that, in top-level sport, “you won’t win anything with kids” – and then found himself being force-fed daily helpings of his own words as Manchester United closed in on a league and cup Double with a bunch of footballing infants fresh out of nursery. That’s the good news for England’s rugby squad less than a year out from the World Cup. The bad news? There is a substantial risk that the new red-rose backs contingent will prove Alan Hansen right after all.
On the face of it, the likes of Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and the brick-outhouse wing contender Semesa Rokoduguni are old enough, big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves. But when it comes to Test exposure, they and the vast majority of their colleagues are mere babes in swaddling clothes.
Which begs an obvious question: is it really possible that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team can develop a meaningful attacking game over the course of a 12-match lead-in to the global tournament?
England are about to play the four highest-ranked southern hemisphere nations in an autumn series at Twickenham, with the All Blacks first up a fortnight today and the Wallabies running down the curtain three weeks later, after Samoa and South Africa. Then, after piecing their bodies – and, perhaps, their souls – back together, they must cross the Severn Bridge for a Six Nations opener with Wales that is already the talk of the hills and valleys among folk who fondly remember the terrible hiding Sam Warburton and company dished out to the white-shirted “foreigners” the last time they set foot in Cardiff.
And all this with a bunch of backs who average 14 caps between them – or, if you put the relatively battle-hardened scrum-halves to one side, nine caps. Even if the formidable Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi were available for the immediate business with the world champions, New Zealand, and their fellow tourists, the group named by Lancaster three days ago would be far less experienced than their direct opponents.
The three No 9s – Danny Care of Harlequins, Ben Youngs of Leicester and Lee Dickson of Northampton – have amassed just over a century of caps. This is 43 per cent of those currently held by the entire back division.
More alarming still for those red-rose supporters who subscribe to the theory that world titles are most likely to be won by teams who can field starting line-ups deeply familiar with the whiff of sporting sulphur, the four chosen wings have the less-than-princely total of 17 international appearances between them. Jonny May of Gloucester has seven all to himself, which makes him the greybeard of the quartet. This may be an amusing thought, but it is no laughing matter.
Compare and contrast for a second. The All Blacks have 489 caps in their touring back division. If and when the ferocious Ma’a Nonu returns to fitness, form and favour, he will bring another 94 with him. South Africa? They have yet to confirm their squad for the forthcoming trip north, but their backs are likely to boast the best part of 500 caps, even without scrum-halves Ruan Pienaar and Fourie du Preez and the midfielder Frans Steyn.
The Wallabies have three uncapped backs in the party heading for these shores, yet still have almost 400 caps in the positions 9 to 15. Wales, meanwhile, have tried and tested know-how in every back-line department, from Mike Phillips at scrum-half to Leigh Halfpenny at full-back via Jamie Roberts at centre and George North on the wing.
As both Australia and Wales are in England’s World Cup group and have the potential to knock a host nation out of their own competition at the pool stage for the first time in the history of the event, it is fair to suggest that Lancaster has something on his plate.
It is not simply a matter of identifying an optimum starting back line, although this one task has proved so troublesome for the coach he might find it easier to make a citizen’s arrest of Lord Lucan. He must also do a dozen other things, including working out a way of giving George Ford (two caps as Owen Farrell’s understudy at outside-half) sufficient game time ahead of a tournament in which the youngster may well be asked to perform minor miracles of midfield creativity and dead-eyed marksmanship.
“If you look at the All Blacks four years ago, they went through four No 10s in the course of the competition and still managed to win it,” said one experienced English coach this week. “It was the mark of a team – or rather, a squad – of players who had complete faith in, and understanding of, the rugby they were trying to play.
“That takes time. You could argue that the New Zealanders have been building their attacking game since the 1995 World Cup. The foundations of their rugby are the ability to perform the basic skills under the most extreme pressure; a level of running fitness that is off the scale; a mindset of always playing to score; and the courage to try something different. You don’t develop those virtues in five minutes.
“One of the problems in England is that there is so little common ground in the club game. Some players come to international rugby with a positive growth mindset, others come from cultures that are much more rigid. But if the England environment is exciting and challenging enough, and the players are good enough and bold enough to respond in the right way, it is possible to make things come together reasonably quickly.
“It is, however, important that those people who are going to be a part of the World Cup spend some time in the Test arena. Ultimately, there is no substitute for exposure to rugby at the highest level.”
Having finished second to the All Blacks on three occasions back in June, it may be that Lancaster feels obliged to run his “go-to” backs – Care, Farrell, Brad Barritt, Mike Brown – against both New Zealand and South Africa in search of a much-needed victory, and then indulge in a little mix-and-match fast-tracking against an underprepared Samoa on 22 November before throwing the kitchen sink at the Wallabies a week later. But if England lose their first two games of the series, making it five defeats on the spin, the Samoa fixture will take on a whole new nerve-shredding dimension.
“You would think,” said Mike Ford, the Bath head coach and father of George, “that Stuart will give somebody a start this autumn apart from Owen Farrell.” He had a point, over and above the one any pushy parent might make.
England will need a genuine choice at outside-half, not to mention alternative midfield options and a range of wing combinations, if they are to make it through to the business end of next year’s jamboree. At the moment, they are ticking none of those boxes.
Lancaster may not feel comfortable giving every last one of his supporting cast of spear-carriers a shot at the title role in the coming weeks, but he will feel even worse if he reaches the World Cup with half his backs in single-figure caps.Reuse content