Defeats leave Lions share of problems
Humblings of the home nations will force coach Warren Gatland into major rethink ahead of next year's series in Australia
Sunday 18 November 2012
Warren Gatland was a thoughtful man when he arrived at Twickenham yesterday. He was even more thoughtful when he left, after watching a half-strength Australia – the country against whom he will coach the 2013 British & Irish Lions next summer – overcome England. At the start of this season, many pundits anticipated a Lions starting XV for the first of the three-match series with the Wallabies based firmly on last season's Grand Slam-winning Wales. But Wales lost all three of their games in Australia in the summer and this month have lurched from defeat in Cardiff against Argentina to an even more damaging loss on Friday to Samoa.
So Gatland needed a solid display from England to offer some solace and, to a degree, he received it. England played to the parameters of their experience but Australia's experience, even without Will Genia, David Pocock and James Horwill, was greater and, in essence, it won them the match.
Along the way they reminded Gatland (who probably did not need it) they are always capable of adapting to circumstances. This was a different Australia forward unit to that beaten so comprehensively by France a week earlier because it contained Ben Alexander at tighthead prop: their tight five was, in fact, the most settled area of Australia's XV and England, for all the speculation that they could once again undermine the opposing scrum, failed to do so.
Gatland has now watched all four home unions live (he was in Edinburgh and Dublin the previous weekend) and seen them all lose. What he needs to see is consistency, and he may have to wait a while for that. As one leading coach remarked recently: "The big thing with Wales is the confidence issue. That comes with momentum whereas England, for example, are different – even when they're crap, they always think they can win."
The point being made is that different teams have a different dynamic, and marrying those differences makes the task of the Lions coaching panel that much harder. Gatland believes he has great strength in depth in particular positions, one of which is the second row: he was not alone in being impressed by Richie Gray for Scotland against New Zealand.
Then along comes England's Joe Launchbury, just 21 and making only his second appearance yesterday off the bench. But almost immediately he became one of England's go-to players and, well as Tom Palmer and Geoff Parling played, Launchbury offers an athleticism which becomes even more appealing when you think of Australia's hard grounds.
Gatland has not asked for a panel of Lions selectors because, video analysis being so acute these days, he can lay hold of all the information he requires. But he will be talking to all the national coaches, and to club coaches, so that he can gain the necessary insight into the personalities of the individuals who eventually travel with him to Australia.
"I've got a really open mind, these autumn internationals are just about who impresses and puts down a marker," Gatland said. "It's an opportunity for some youngsters to step up on the big stage against some of the top teams in the world. If someone plays well, you have to take notice. You follow them closely and, if they play well the following week and so on, then they will really put themselves into contention."
So who, at this halfway stage of the November programme, are England's contenders? Alex Goode, at full-back, provided most of the creative sparks against Fiji and Australia though yesterday, because Australia had greater continuity of possession, he was out-generalled by Berrick Barnes, who has been playing international rugby more than five years and 40 caps longer.
Charlie Sharples, who scored two tries against Fiji, found life considerably harder on the wing, as did Tom Youngs at hooker. There were far fewer carries by Youngs, though he can take considerable heart from the fact that England's set-piece operated effectively; the inability of Tatafu Polota-Nau to do as much for Australia cost him his place in the line-up for the second half.
Neither of England's half-backs advanced their Lions claims significantly though the consistency of Toby Flood's goal-kicking and his willingness to take on the opposition back-row could be important. Nor did Chris Robshaw make too much of a stride as a potential Lions captain: midway through the second half, when points were on offer from penalties, Robshaw opted to go to the corner for a line-out and England came away with nothing.
That decision is entirely in character with Robshaw's leadership of his club but England, in the international environment, are not so far advanced as Harlequins on the club stage. Australia, so organised in defence, refused resolutely to give anything away.
The Wallabies have been here before, in 2005, when a savage run of injuries cost Eddie Jones his job as head coach. At one time or another this year, Robbie Deans has had 34 players unavailable, a fact disregarded by his many critics; now, though, Deans can envisage the prospect of adding the scalps of Italy and Wales to that of England, thereby ending 2012 in credit and retaining his job for the Lions series.
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