Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster needs a win but some of his choices seem a step back

For the game against Samoa some familiar faces return and I think that's strange

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The Independent Online

For the first time since 2006, England have lost five matches in a row. I was in the team then, and I don’t buy into the doom-and-gloom mongering. They’ve been hit by a raft of injuries and narrowly lost two games that if they had stayed switched on for the full 80 minutes they could have won.

Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, knows as well as anyone that, for all the improvements in the last 18 months, it had got to the point where a result was needed. Last weekend against South Africa the result was not forthcoming but that does not mean the good work is suddenly undone.

In 2006, the situation was similar. We had narrowly lost big matches. The only difference is that we had not long before won the World Cup and, owing to a management change and the lack of a long-term plan, we were lost as a side.

There was more pressure on us then. We were the world champions but we kept losing. This side has been allowed to rebuild, to start from scratch, but now the expectation and the pressure are rising; pressure to perform and pressure to win.

Now, when they really do need a win, along come Samoa. England are strong favourites, they should win, but as always this will be a brutally tough game. Samoa are no mugs and they are very, very hard to play against.

 

First and foremost, Lancaster must do what it takes to win the match. But this is still an opportunity to test new players. I like his honest reasons for the changes – the players know why they have been dropped and now so do we. Rob Webber for Dylan Hartley because of ill discipline. James Haskell for Tom Wood as Lancaster believes he brings greater dynamism. George Ford is in brilliant form and if he has a cracker against Samoa he will take a lot of shifting from the No 10 shirt.

With 11 players missing – over a third of the squad – it means we have been seeing a lot of faces we are not normally used to. Yet for this one, some surprisingly familiar ones return, and I think that’s strange.

Haskell has 51 caps and has been on form this year, but we know what we’re going to get from him. For me this was the time to give captain Chris Robshaw a rest and give one of the young No 7s a go – Calum Clark, Luke Wallace, Will Fraser. Of course, the obvious candidate is Steffon Armitage but, having chosen to play his club rugby in France, he’s ineligible to play.

Billy Twelvetrees is a strange call for me, too. He’s not performed well this year. The same goes for Richard Wigglesworth too. Yes, the half-back pairings have underwhelmed in these two matches so far, and Wigglesworth has good distribution and has done well for Saracens, but is he the answer for England in this position in the long term? No.

Even taking into account the injury situation, turning to guys who are not in the early stages of their careers, who may have large numbers of caps but are certainly not the first-choice picks, feels like a step backwards.

I’m sure Lancaster knows this. Maybe he feels the younger alternatives simply are not putting their hands up or are not making their case strongly enough. Maybe he feels England have to win this game no matter what and these are the men to make that happen now.

I am delighted that Ben Morgan starts, he deserves it. He has been outstanding and his try on Saturday was an absolutely brilliant piece of finishing. Dave Attwood has played well too, despite his blunder in the last match. He is putting pressure on all the second rows. He will be fuming with himself for not finishing that chance but he will cope.

That Ford will start is a clear positive too. Owen Farrell moves to No 12, and we will see what that combination can offer. Farrell clearly brings a lot in terms of commitment and aggressive defence.

Due to the half-back pairing not firing this autumn it gives Lancaster a chance to try a combination I believe he has wanted to look at for some time. Farrell didn’t have a great game at the weekend either. Maybe he too needs a rest, but seeing those two together will be interesting all the same. These narrow defeats, not just in these two matches but in the summer too, are not a long way away from being narrow victories.

We’re not talking about disastrous performances, but not taking the opportunities and the chances that are on offer and continuing to lose these tight games inevitably ebbs away at your self-belief. Self-doubt creeps in. Now the pressure is on.

They must win this game and then get on to Australia and win that, too. Then they will go into the Six Nations with the right to feel confident of their ability to win that.

For those starting this weekend, as in every England match, it is an opportunity to show you deserve to be there. Morgan, Ford, Ben Youngs, Haskell and Webber are the players who, if they have outstanding games, have every reason to think they will start against Australia. And from there, who knows?

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