England search for quick fix for New Zealand showdown but stand behind Chris Robshaw
Lancaster gives firm backing to under-fire captain as Flood is ruled out of All Blacks game
Stuart Lancaster has already resigned himself to one significant change of personnel ahead of England's profoundly challenging meeting with the barely beatable All Blacks at Twickenham on Saturday. Toby Flood, the coach's preferred choice both as an outside-half and a marksman, will not recover from an injured toe on his kicking foot in time to face the world champions, so Owen Farrell will start at No 10 with the uncapped and thrillingly uninhibited Gloucester playmaker Freddie Burns on the bench.
What Lancaster refuses to countenance following last weekend's much-discussed defeat by South Africa is further resignation, in any sense of the word. Chris Robshaw, appointed red-rose captain nine months ago and the man at the centre of the fuss over the late penalty backfire against the Boks, will definitely lead the side against the New Zealanders and stands a perfectly good chance of hanging on to the job for the meeting with Scotland in February, although the coach will not make a decisive call on that game until he casts an eye over the runners and riders at a pre-Six Nations training camp in Leeds.
"We asked the players to give us 100 per cent against the Springboks and Chris, more than anyone, did that," Lancaster said yesterday. "He had a fantastic game: he was our top carrier, our top tackler and he hit the most breakdowns. If we're talking about the Six Nations, we'll base our decisions on form and fitness at the time, as we always do. But he's doing a great job as captain and he starts on Saturday, as our open-side flanker and skipper."
Lancaster met with his senior players, the so-called "generals", yesterday morning to discuss the South Africa game in all its detail – not least the detail of the last two minutes, during which Robshaw instructed Farrell to kick for the sticks rather than for the corner, even though England were four points adrift. Farrell's disagreement with the decision was plain to see and by the time he did as he was told, the chances of the team mounting another meaningful assault were drastically reduced.
"The context was difficult," Lancaster commented. "When Chris elected to go for the posts, Owen was on the far side of the field trying to get the ball off the South Africans. I think he'd processed in his mind that we'd be going for the corner. Chris said 'We're not', Owen said 'Are you sure?' and while I think that showed in his body language, it wasn't to the extent people are making out. I'm certainly not concerned about any split – there's nothing in the leadership dynamic that is causing a problem.
"I saw Chris alone when he came into camp last [Sunday] night and he was flat, but later on, after everyone had gone up to him and told him not to worry about things, he felt so much better. He's been the one held out and blamed for the defeat, and it's unfair. There are hundreds of decisions made in a game and we didn't lose because of that one call. The players take collective responsibility. More than anything, they're disappointed that they didn't make the decision work for him."
So that was that, as far as Lancaster was concerned. Unfortunately for him, the All Blacks were merrily breathing new life into the issue on arrival in London for the last game of another wildly successful campaign. Asked how he would have reacted if a silver-ferned captain – Richie McCaw, say – had made a Robshaw-style call at the last knockings of a major Test match, the tourists' assistant coach Ian Foster held an imaginary gun to his head before pulling his imaginary trigger. This one could run and run, like Forrest Gump or The Mousetrap.
England's chances of being a seeded side at their own World Cup in 2015 evaporated with last weekend's reverse: even if they inflict a first defeat of the calendar year on the All Blacks, they cannot overhaul fourth-placed France in the international rankings. But as Geoff Parling, the senior lock and line-out leader, said yesterday, this weekend's contest does give them a chance of "altering the perspective on this series".
Changes to the England side are likely to be kept to a bare minimum, although Lancaster must decide whether to incorporate Jonathan Joseph's attacking spark – something that would mean breaking up the bludgeoning midfield partnership of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi. The pack will certainly remain intact, assuming the loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero shakes off another bout of knee trouble. He will not train until Thursday, but is expected to make the cut.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks were their usual cagey selves, leaving aside the smart-arsed contribution to the great debate over Robshaw's decision-making prowess. "It's a dangerous time to be playing England," said Foster. "They will have targeted us: there's no better way of finding redemption after a couple of defeats than knocking over a top team, and they showed on their tour of South Africa in June that they can play with some width. This is going to be at least as tough as the Wales game."
As Foster's men put more than 30 points past the Welsh in Cardiff last weekend, perhaps he wasn't being quite so cagey after all.
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