Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster keeps status quo... and risks another substitute saga
Defiant coach picks the same squad for trip to Edinburgh
England are travelling north to Murrayfield for Saturday's Calcutta Cup encounter with an unchanged starting team, an unchanged bench…and the same capacity for controversial substitutions at key moments of the contest.
The head coach, Stuart Lancaster, utterly unapologetic about his tinkerings on the personnel front during last weekend's narrow Six Nations defeat in Paris, dug in his heels still further when, in sticking rather than twisting in selection for the first time in his two-year career in charge, he emphasised the importance of "trusting the players".
Had Jonny May, the Gloucester wing who suffered a busted nose in the opening exchanges at Stade de France, not made a complete recovery and been declared fully fit for what promises to be a hard-bitten encounter in Edinburgh, serious surgery may have been performed on the England back division.
"It would have changed the whole dynamic," Lancaster acknowledged. But as it is, the coach has a second opportunity to run the rule over a new-fangled three-quarter line boasting the grand total of 13 caps between them – a mere 70 fewer than Scotland's left wing, Sean Lamont, has accumulated on his own.
May took a fearful smack on the beak against the French – the full-back Mike Brown was the man responsible, purely accidentally – and confidently expects another one on Saturday, courtesy of the opposition on this occasion. "I'm not worried about it: my nose is sore most of the time anyway," he said. "I'll probably take one early on. If it happens and it bleeds, I'll get it sorted and be straight back in the game. I don't want to go off again, not after last week's bad luck. I was actually shouting out that I didn't want the ball when it was passed to me."
Lancaster will be very unfortunate indeed if he is forced to remodel his back division on the hoof for the second week running. In Paris, he was left with a full-back on the left wing, an outside centre on the right wing and a stand-off who cramped up so badly that by close of play he could barely walk, let alone run.
However, the coach has been heavily criticised nonetheless, primarily over his substitution decisions in two "spine" positions, scrum-half and hooker. By replacing Danny Care and Dylan Hartley with Lee Dickson and Tom Youngs, he made big calls that some felt backfired on him.
Today, the candid Hartley was having none of it. "All that stuff…it's just people talking," he said when asked about Youngs' latest failure to hit his line-out jumpers at a vital moment. "If Tom had started the game, his stats would have been the same as mine: I missed a line-out, he missed a line-out.
"The only difference was that he was on the field for 20 minutes while I was on for an hour. I thought he really added something when he came on. He's a good enough player and a strong enough character not to let this get to him."
It will be interesting to see to what extent, if any, the Murrayfield experience – a thoroughly miserable one for England, as often as not – gets to Lancaster. The 2012 fixture went the way of the red rose, thanks to Charlie Hodgson's chargedown try, and it marked a successful first outing for the new coach, who at that stage had been appointed on an interim basis. Now, 19 months shy of a World Cup at home, the atmosphere is very different, as Lancaster acknowledged.
"The expectation now is far greater, no doubt about it," he said, slightly uneasy in the knowledge that Six Nations defeats in Edinburgh made life extremely difficult for a couple of his recent predecessors, Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton. "Two years ago? It was a bit of a blur really. We fought tooth and nail for the victory and there wasn't much finesse about it, but we had come together as a team only a week or so before and we didn't have much to lose.
"This game is different, but if you want to be successful you need to be like the All Blacks in embracing expectation and thriving on it."
Whatever the Scottish supporters expected ahead of the team announcements, it was not the ruthless banishment of the captain, Kelly Brown, to the back end of beyond. The flanker led the side against Ireland in Dublin five days ago and while he had a rough afternoon against the Ulsterman Chris Henry, he could hardly have anticipated being dropped from the 23-man squad.
However, the coach, Scott Johnson, had indicated before the start of the tournament that Brown, a versatile forward, was being seen as a No 7 or nothing, and would have to justify himself in that position or face demotion.
Johnson said it had been a "difficult" decision but argued that the Glasgow breakaway Chris Fusaro, who will win his first cap on the open-side flank, had the ball-winning skills to blunt England's attacking edge.
"England are powerful, assertive and aggressive," the coach commented, "so we've picked Fusaro to perform a certain role." There are also two changes in the starting back line, with Matt Scott replacing Duncan Taylor at centre and Tommy Seymour filling the gap on the left wing left by the injured Sean Maitland. Greig Laidlaw will lead the team from scrum-half.
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