Lancaster can seal job with one more win
Victory over Welsh to gain full-time role for coach as Robshaw named captain for rest of Six Nations
Stuart Lancaster has quite enough food for thought ahead of next week's Six Nations meeting with a super-confident band of Welshmen at Twickenham – a veritable plateful, of Bunteresque proportions – without worrying unduly about turning his caretaker role as England's head coach into a proper job of the full-time variety. But with the deadline for applications passing yesterday, he will inevitably find himself in Harry Redknapp territory: unable to breathe, let alone speak, without someone weighing up his credentials as a long-term leader.
Lancaster confirmed his candidacy last week, since when he has won a second successive game away from home – at least one more than many expected. It is a decent start to be sure, even if England's attacking creativity has extended no further than the manufacturing of two chargedown tries for that unlikeliest of opportunist poachers, Charlie Hodgson.
Can he now push on sufficiently to see off Nick Mallett, the ante-post favourite from South Africa, and John Kirwan, the New Zealander who has World Cup coaching experience with both Italy and Japan? Can he survive a home-grown challenge thought to be centred around Jim Mallinder of Northampton and Toby Booth of London Irish? Events in nine days' time will give us a massive clue. Victory over Wales would leave him in a very strong position.
"I won't be commenting further on this subject now the application window has closed, partly for personal reasons and partly to protect the integrity of the process," Lancaster said yesterday after breaking off from an England training run in Surrey. This will not spare him many hundreds of loaded questions over the remaining weeks of the Six Nations, but he is unlikely to be fooled into saying anything foolish, or even relevant. One of the many impressive aspects of the Cumbrian's performance to date has been his sure-footedness.
If the Rugby Football Union is wise – a big "if", admittedly – it will not assess Lancaster's claim in isolation, but consider his application in the context of his relationship with Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree, the two assistant coaches brought in to help him negotiate the post-Martin Johnson interregnum. They should surely be viewed as a job lot, given their success in dragging England out of the swamp and on to dry land in the space of a few short weeks.
"They've been fantastic," said Chris Robshaw, the Harlequins flanker who was yesterday confirmed as captain for the rest of the tournament after two performances in which his back-row productivity – top tackler and top ball-carrier against both Scotland and Italy – was matched by his immediate grasp of leadership fundamentals at Test level. "They're so passionate in everything they do and it gets through to the players. You want to go out there and play for these guys: to defend your line for them, to win for them."
After a hard training session – "I would agree that Wales have played their two games to date with a greater tempo and intensity than we've managed and our work here is based around raising our levels to match them, which is why guys are dragging themselves off the practice field," Lancaster said, with customary honesty – almost half the 32-man squad were released for this weekend's club fixtures. These included the Paris-based lock Tom Palmer, who started in both Edinburgh and Rome, and the new No 8 Ben Morgan, whose eye-catching 30 minutes off the bench at Stadio Olimpico put him in pole position for a place in the run-on team against Wales, where he happens to play his regional rugby with Scarlets.
Interestingly, another substitute who made the most of his chance against Italy, the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson, was not made available for Premiership action. "From the medical point of view, we don't want him risking his hand," explained Lancaster, referring to the fracture Dickson suffered towards the end of the narrow Calcutta Cup victory. Was there another point of view? Apparently. "Lee played well in Rome and will be a part of the selection decision-making over the next six days," the coach continued. "Yes, he and Ben Youngs are different scrum-halves, but I'd argue that this is partly because they play differently for their clubs. We're developing an England way of playing and I don't believe a change at No 9 would necessarily mean a change of philosophy."
Asked whether he was really willing, two games into the job, to change a winning side, Lancaster was clear in his response. "If you're dropping someone from a 32-man squad, casting them aside without feedback or any indication of forward development, that's not the right thing to do," he said, perhaps thinking of his predecessor's brutal treatment of the captain Steve Borthwick in 2010. "But players recognise that no one has a right to a place in the match-day side." The coach is a bold one. You have to give him that much.
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