England tour of New Zealand: Stand-ins stand out – Stuart Lancaster must make tough calls

As famine becomes feast, the England coach is given much food for thought

Auckland

If the descent from feast into famine is never less than traumatic, the return journey sometimes throws up difficulties of its own. Stuart Lancaster’s reward for an excellent England display in the opening Test against the All Blacks, who were shaken to their bootlaces at Eden Park before stirring themselves sufficiently to claim a late 20-15 victory they scarcely merited, is the most sensitive selection of his two-and-a-half-year tour of duty at the head of the national team. Should he get it wrong, there is no telling how wounding the consequences might be.

On the face of it, he should feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Some of those who manned the barricades with a passion at the most forbidding venue in the world game – the centre Kyle Eastmond and the outside-half Freddie Burns, the hooker Rob Webber and the blind-side flanker James Haskell – were third-choice players at best, although their stock has just risen sharply. Watching from the stand, jet-lagged in theory if not in reality, were a bunch of first-choice late arrivals now under consideration for the meeting in Dunedin this coming Saturday. Luther Burrell, Owen Farrell, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Billy Vunipola… these are players of serious stature, “automatics” rather than mere “alternatives”.

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Throw in a couple of walking wounded who expect to be moving a whole lot quicker over the next couple of days – the midfielder Billy Twelvetrees, the scrum-half Danny Care – and the question is an obvious one: how in God’s name does Lancaster strike a balance between loyalty to those who performed so well in the Six Nations before missing the Eden Park contest through no fault of their own, and proper recognition of those who filled in so effectively? It is a conundrum, to be sure.

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Having gone from a skeleton staff to a cast of thousands in the space of a week, Lancaster finds himself in the most delicate of situations. Wholesale changes of the kind most members of the union cognoscenti anticipated prior to Saturday’s match will require no justification if England square the series in the South Island and head for Hamilton with their eyes set on a very great prize indeed. But if the coach performs major surgery on his starting combination – a move that will inevitably leave some of his charges feeling short-changed – and then sees the team produce an inferior display against opponents who fully intend to raise the level of their own game, the critics will have plenty to say for themselves.

 

“This is a very tough selection position to be in, but it’s good for us in lots of ways,” the coach said yesterday, positive as ever. “The time you feel apprehensive in picking a team is when someone comes in from a long way outside the squad and you think, ‘Actually, he’s really not up to speed’. That’s not the case here, but there are difficult calls to be made: the fact that Ben Morgan was very effective for us at No 8 at Eden Park has to be set against Billy Vunipola’s contribution over the season; Kyle Eastmond was excellent on Saturday, while Billy Twelvetrees was excellent through the Six Nations; Manu Tuilagi played really well at the weekend, but so has Luther Burrell since he’s been with us.”

Twenty-four hours after this painfully late, exasperatingly narrow defeat – but for a couple of glaring errors at the last knockings and a fistful of dodgy calls from the referee Nigel Owens, the tourists might easily have become the first side in two decades to drive the All Blacks out of their spiritual home – Lancaster spoke a good deal about the “bigger picture”, by which he meant the continuing process of building a squad capable of regaining the World Cup in a little over a year’s time.

And you could see his point. It is worth reiterating that England fielded only five first-choice players at the weekend, with enforced changes in every area of the side, yet were holding the All Blacks at 15 apiece until Conrad Smith, that modern master of an outside centre, scored a try in the right corner with less than three minutes remaining – a decisive intervention from a midfielder blessed with a rare and refined rugby intelligence. This was no mean achievement from a side widely expected to lose by 20 points or more.

The fact that Burns, whose undoubted gifts as an outside-half playmaker were practically invisible during the second half of a depressingly unproductive season at Gloucester, rose to the occasion as well as he did confirmed Lancaster in his long-held belief that the West Countryman has the capacity to operate at the highest level. It was the sharpness of Burns’ passing that allowed Eastmond, so often dismissed as a poor man’s Jason Robinson, to show the best of himself with a combination of clever footwork and geometrically precise running angles: a cross, if you like, between Fred Astaire and Euclid. Together with Tuilagi, whose bowling-ball qualities were much in evidence, they lost nothing to the New Zealand combination of Aaron Cruden, Ma’a Nonu and Smith.

Henry Thomas, David Wilson, Geoff Parling and Rob Webber relax during the England recovery session at the Pullman Hotel yesterday Henry Thomas, David Wilson, Geoff Parling and Rob Webber relax during the England recovery session at the Pullman Hotel yesterday There was also plenty to admire from the inexperienced but aggressively combative Webber and the eye-catchingly accomplished Geoff Parling, who struck up a potent line-out partnership with his hooker and generally performed at Lions Test pitch on his return to the engine room. As for the back-row unit, neither Morgan nor James Haskell was far off the standard set by the captain Chris Robshaw, who, not for the first time, force-fed his critics with barely digestible helpings of their own words.

All of which would have been more gratifying still had England actually won the game – which, it is worth remembering, they didn’t. It sounds harsh, but by allowing an opportunity as enticing as it was unexpected to slip through their fingers, they have left themselves in the same place as so many other, markedly inferior red-rose vintages: one Test down and 80 minutes from oblivion.

It is a moment for cool assessment, inspired selection and extremely sympathetic man-management.

New Zealand 20 England 15 by number:

15 - This was New Zealand’s 15th consecutive victory – their record is 17

32 - NZ’s unbeaten record at Eden Park stretches to 32 matches over 20 years

20 - The All Blacks have scored tries in 20 straight matches against England – the last time they failed to do so was in 1993

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