Stuart Lancaster occasionally lets his mind run free and indulges in a little thinking of the blue sky variety. For instance, he appears to believe it possible for someone to prosper in international rugby union by playing a bastardised form of rugby league.
But even in his wildest dreams, he cannot imagine that England stand an earthly of winning the World Cup they are about to host with a dodgy scrum, a misfiring line-out and an “after you, Claude” approach to the breakdown.
Only once in seven tournaments stretching back to 1987 has the Webb Ellis Trophy been hoisted towards the heavens by a team forced to confront a range of serious issues up front. And that side – the Wallabies of 1991 – were not wholly bereft at the sharp end, boasting as they did the young Phil Kearns at hooker, the grey-bearded Simon Poidevin at flanker and a lock by the name of John Eales, who looked like he might be a genius as the competition unfolded and spent the next decade providing confirmation.
Lord knows, those Australians were fallible in the grunt-and-gristle parts of the game, but they were brilliant at finding a way to make do and mend.
Which was precisely what the England forwards were unable to do here on Saturday night in going down 25-20 to French opponents who were more pumped-up, more passionate and infinitely more physical for the lion’s share of a game they might easily have won by 15 points or more, rather than a measly margin that did not even begin to reflect their superiority.
It was the second time in a week that the red rose pack had come up second best to Les Bleus and at this stage of proceedings – there is only one preparatory game left before the main event, against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday week – the level of concern is growing. Warm-up games are not the be all and end all, plainly, but this is no time for the forwards to go stone cold.
Leaving aside the Wasps back-rower James Haskell, who at least attempted to put himself about during a spell of 60-odd minutes in which the star performers in an extremely useful tricolore pack – Guilhem Guirado, Rabah Slimani, Yoann Maestri, Louis Picamoles – made a horrible mess of the visitors in all phases, the most spirited Englishman on view, by a country kilometre, was Jack Nowell. And he was playing on the right wing.
If Haskell has a sense of irony, he will be smirking at the fact that England’s fortunes improved upon his departure. But he should not for a moment take it personally: most games, especially those of the warm-up variety, go pear-shaped when the rival coaches unload their benches virtually simultaneously, thereby throwing up open-field opportunities for the newcomers that were unavailable to those who preceded them and had operated in the eye of the storm. Haskell’s energy continues to be invaluable, especially with so many of his colleagues in urgent need of a battery charge.
Lancaster was in no mood to sugar-coat things: having watched his forwards suffer twice running in areas of the game he considered to be strong points, he felt he had no option but to tell it how it was.
“There are a lot of players in that dressing room who are disappointed at not putting in a performance, especially in the first half,” he said. “Our decision-making at the breakdown was poor and we didn’t win enough set-piece ball. Not good enough, basically.”
Not good enough, indeed, that some of Lancaster’s banker personnel – the bitterly disappointing No 8 Billy Vunipola, the anonymous lock Courtney Lawes, the muddled midfield axis – were outperformed by the Harlequins veteran Nick Easter, the heavyweight Bath second-rower Dave Attwood and the celebrity playmaker Danny Cipriani, all of whom remain favourites for ejection when the final cut to the training squad takes place later this week. Talk about muddying the waters.
Cipriani, third of three contenders at both outside-half and full-back, added a dash of devil to England’s attacking game in the 17 minutes or so he spent on the field, bagging a try with a finish as determined as it was intelligent and generally making the French defenders think twice before committing themselves to the tackle.
He could hardly have done more to force Lancaster into a recalculation of the back-line equation, but as the coach confessed, it remains difficult to make the sums add up in favour of the Sale player.
“The ball didn’t fall my way in the game at Twickenam, but I saw more of it here,” Cipriani said. “If I put up my hand in any way, good. I think I showed I’m disciplined enough to come off the bench and organise some things. People have been writing me off – not in a bad way, but simply by saying I’d run out of time – so I had to take the chance to show I can play a bit. I’ve done everything I can do.”
It was hard to disagree, and it may be that if Lancaster meets popular expectation by axing three of his most creative midfielders – Cipriani, Henry Slade and Billy Twelvetrees – in favour of the likes of Brad Barritt, Luther Burrell and Sam Burgess, he will live to rue the day.
England have some hot outside backs at their disposal, but their chances of melting opposition defences will be close to zero unless someone works out a way of giving them the ball.
There again, all this could be rendered irrelevant. The thing England need above and beyond everything else is a high-performance pack firing on all cylinders.
What they have right now is a spluttering three-wheeler with a rusty hole where its big end used to be, and unless they trade one for the other over the next few days, Ireland could blow a bloody great hole in their World Cup chances before the tournament begins.
As Lancaster likes to say, the clock is ticking.Reuse content