The wings are all over the place, the centre partnership remains unfathomable, the tight forwards are going down like ninepins, the back-row unit is considered by many to be dangerously unbalanced… One way or another, the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, has plenty on his to-do list as he moves towards a squad announcement that will define the national team’s approach to next year’s home World Cup.
There is already a high level of concern in certain quarters. Some Premiership rugby directors suspect there is confusion at the heart of the England operation over style and strategy – the meeting between Lancaster and the club coaches during the summer was not all sweetness and light, according to whispered reports from those present – while critics of captain Chris Robshaw have had plenty to say for themselves in recent weeks, much to the disgust of Conor O’Shea, the flanker’s boss at Harlequins.
Inevitably, comparisons are made with the World Cup-winning side pieced together by Clive Woodward in 2003 – comparisons that appear to do Lancaster no favours.
The misty-eyed nostalgics point to the vast experience of that outstanding England team and argue that the current coaches are nowhere near achieving the same kind of consistency in selection. “Woodward knew his best side and kept on picking it until it clicked,” they say. “How many current players are cast-iron certainties to start the big games next September? Six or seven, at best.”
But the memory plays tricks. Who now recalls that at the corresponding stage of England’s build-up to the ’03 tournament – they played the All Blacks at Twickenham in the first of their autumn internationals, as will Lancaster’s side on 8 November – the first-choice right wing was not Jason Robinson or Josh Lewsey, but James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester, that orthopaedic calamity in human form? Who could say, hand on heart, that they remember a player as celebrated as Lawrence Dallaglio slumming it on the bench match after match, or that Woodward experimented with Charlie Hodgson at inside centre, or that the half-forgotten Phil Christophers and Robbie Morris were serious contenders for a World Cup place?
How’s this for a little-known fact? Woodward’s starting line-up for the final against Australia in Sydney had never played together before the tournament. The main body of the side were familiar with each other, but it was not until very late in the day that the coach settled on his front-row configuration, and he waited even longer to make the cruelly painful choice between Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken at scrum-half. Only a few weeks before the tournament, it was Bracken who wore the No 9 shirt against the All Blacks in Wellington and the Wallabies in Melbourne, epic performances that would underpin England’s subsequent challenge for the title.
A number of players who, until the last minute, had good reason to consider themselves first-choice picks – Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard up front, Dan Luger out wide – suddenly found themselves in a different place entirely. Rowntree did not even make the squad, thanks to the surge in form of the infinitely less battle-hardened prop Trevor Woodman. When the old Leicester hard-head sits down in his capacity as England’s forwards coach to weigh the pros and cons of the 2015 contenders, he will more aware than anyone of the brutal nature of his task.
Woodward’s vintage had one clear advantage over Lancaster’s version. More than half the 2003 side had been playing regular international rugby for at least five years, and significantly longer in the case of Dawson, Dallaglio, Martin Johnson and Neil Back. There are precious few individuals in that category pushing for places on next year’s roster. Come the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the England side may well have the same depth of experience as the Johnson-Dallaglio brigade. It won’t be there next year.
But while the game has changed out of all recognition since New Zealand’s “Baby Blacks” won the inaugural global tournament in 1987 and a freshly minted band of Wallabies succeeded them as champions in 1991, there is still time available to Lancaster as he searches for his optimum combinations. Where he needs to shift his butt is in settling on the brand of rugby he wants his side to play.
If he genuinely believes England can win the big prize through heavy-duty defence and the occasional counter-attack, he should place size and power above creative ingenuity. If he believes Bath, the most exciting side in the Premiership, have it right in playing a challenging brand of all-court rugby based on the brilliance of their passing game at close quarters, he had better pick himself some footballers. His selection in a little over a fortnight’s time should give us the answer to the conundrum.
As in 2002, so it is in 2014. Back in the day, Clive Woodward was experimenting heavily, with Robinson, Ben Cohen, Simpson-Daniel, Luger, Christophers, Iain Balshaw and, latterly, Lewsey all in the wing mix.
Lancaster has almost as many contenders and it is far from impossible that two uncapped men – the Bath pairing of Anthony Watson and Semesa Rokoduguni – will mount a serious challenge, even at this late stage in the piece.
Watson is a hot tip to start at least one of the autumn Tests, although recent injury problems have cramped his style a little. Rokoduguni, a Fijian who has committed himself to an England career, is very much a bolter: no one seems quite sure whether he is temperamentally suited to the demands of international rugby. But he fits Lancaster’s preference for power wings, unlike the diminutive Christian Wade of Wasps, and he is playing the house down at the Recreation Ground.
Chris Ashton, Jack Nowell, Marland Yarde and Jonny May cannot afford to go quiet.
Woodward’s commitment to a centre pairing of Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall was clear before the World Cup, although he continued to diddle around in selection and even picked Mike Catt ahead of Tindall for the semi-final against France.
Lancaster is nowhere near as settled in his thinking: indeed, the No 12 position remains his biggest single headache, as it has been for every England coach since Greenwood called it quits in 2004.
It is hard to see the coach relieving Manu Tuilagi of the outside centre role: the Leicester player is a one-trick pony, but the trick is an unusually good one. The problem is that for all their yeoman-like virtues, neither Luther Burrell nor Brad Barritt shows much capacity for thinking outside the box. Billy Twelvetrees is essentially a creative spirit, but he spends so much time seeking contact these days he is in danger of losing the best of himself. Kyle Eastmond has the skills and the footwork, but his horror show in Hamilton in June has not been forgotten. Perhaps Henry Slade, the smooth-as-silk Exeter midfielder, will provide an answer.
Danny Care and Owen Farrell are ahead of the game at Nos 9 and 10, just as Dawson and Jonny Wilkinson were a dozen years ago (although Dawson had to deal with a late surge from his old rival Bracken). Care is benefiting from Ben Youngs’ unconvincing form and Lee Dickson’s struggles for first-team rugby at Northampton; Farrell is threatened chiefly by fitness problems. The choice of his understudy – George Ford? Freddie Burns? Danny Cipriani? – will be fascinating.
As in 2003, this England set-up has props and hookers coming out of its cauliflower ears. The fact that Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole are all out of the autumn internationals may be a pain in the nether regions, but the discomfort will ease if they are fit and firing after Christmas. The least of Lancaster’s problems.
Another obvious area of strength. Where Woodward had Johnson, Ben Kay, Danny Grewcock and Simon Shaw at his disposal, Lancaster can happily perm any two from Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood and Geoff Parling (assuming the last-named puts his concussion issues safely behind him). Had the Leicester captain Ed Slater been fit, he too would have challenged. The World Cup may come a little soon for him, sadly.
Leaving aside the need to send a rocket in Dallaglio’s direction in late 2002, Woodward was able to rest easy in the knowledge that the finest back-row combination in the history of the English game was there at his fingertips.
Lancaster is nowhere near as blessed, although on a good day there is nothing remotely shabby about Robshaw, Tom Wood, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Billy Vunipola or Ben Morgan. If the coach is serious about giving an uncapped loosie – the Saracens open-side specialist Will Fraser, perhaps, or the Exeter blind-side operator Dave Ewers – a chance, he should do it against Samoa next month.Reuse content