Autumn internationals: 'This is a defining year for us', says England coach Stuart Lancaster
Coach puts faith in youth with team that has an average age of 24
Stuart Lancaster may have done a brilliant job in taking the drama out of England's rugby crisis following the pratfall at the last World Cup, but the red-rose coach is planning some big productions over the next three weekends of international action at Twickenham. "This is a defining year for us," he said. "We can't make the mistake of waiting a game or two before getting up to speed. It's our job to be ready for the here and now."
Lancaster does not often talk in such terms – very much the cool and analytical technocrat, he prefers not to create hostages to fortune in advance of Test programmes featuring opponents as dangerous as the All Blacks – but he clearly feels that if England are to mount a serious challenge at the home World Cup in 2015, this autumn series is a "momentum moment". The meeting with Australia is therefore a must-win match.
The changes to the starting line-up were well flagged: Joel Tomkins, the one debutant, has been the odds-on favourite to replace the injured Manu Tuilagi at outside centre for weeks; Lee Dickson's form at scrum-half for the Premiership title challengers Northampton propelled him into Lancaster's thinking as long ago as mid-September; the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy, were selections of the "no-brainer" variety once the Lions loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero broke down with knee problems; and the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan fell victim to his club's collapsing standards up front.
It did, however, come as some surprise to learn that the young Wasps lock Joe Launchbury and the high-performing Northampton second-rower Courtney Lawes would have been paired together in the engine room even if Geoff Parling, the Lions line-out specialist, had not been forced out of the Wallaby game with concussion. Neither Launchbury nor Lawes is a middle jumper or, for that matter, what might be called a genuinely "tight" forward. On the face of it, the partnership seems dangerously unbalanced.
Over the coming months, the 6ft 7in, middle-jumping Bath forward Dave Attwood should emerge as the solution to the boilerhouse conundrum. On Saturday, he must make do with a place among the replacements. The development of an Attwood-Lawes combination was a priority for Lancaster's predecessor Martin Johnson before the 2011 global gathering in New Zealand – and Johnson knew more than the most about the realities of the position. Things did not work out, for one reason or another, but the project is likely to be relaunched sooner rather than later.
"Dave will certainly add some ballast to the bench and, while he hasn't quite had the game time to force a place in the starting line-up [Attwood picked up a rib injury late last month], this is a big chance for him," Lancaster said. "At the start of the game, Courtney will jump in the middle while Joe will scrummage behind Dan Cole at tight-head prop. Yes, you want balance in your second row, but I think it's doing Joe a disservice to suggest that he can't play a tight game. We've been impressed by his physicality, his mauling and his defensive work this season."
Dave Attwood must make do with a place on the bench – for now (Getty)
This is a young England side: the average age of the starting line-up is 24, with Dickson the eldest at 28. It is, dare we say it, almost Australian in its make-up. Yet while Lancaster subscribes to the view that experience is among the most crucial elements in the make-up of World Cup-winning sides, he is not in the least spooked by the shortage of miles on his team's clock.
"I'm not pursuing some misguided youth policy, trying to give every 21-year-old a game for the sake of it," he said. "The people in this team deserve their status. It reflects the quality of the people coming through the programmes we've put in place."
They will have to grow up quickly if they are to deal effectively with Wallaby backs as hot as the scrum-half Will Genia, the outside-half Quade Cooper and the jaw-dropping full-back Israel Folau, the multi-sport genius who set his union career in motion to such stunning effect during the Lions series last summer. "Special players create special plays," Lancaster acknowledged. "We know Genia is lethal around the edges, that there is real variety to Cooper's passing game, that Folau's aerial game is outstanding.
"No defensive system is infallible, especially against opponents of that quality, so what we have to do is make sure that the principles of our system are rock solid, that our attitude and intensity are right – and then make good decisions."
Maybe James Bond – aka Sir Roger Moore – might help. A man with the defence of the nation in his hands, he was staying in the team hotel. "He must be good," Lancaster said of the famous spy. "I didn't know he was here."
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