Six Nations 2014: Stuart Lancaster kicks 'arrogant England' charge into touch ahead of Wales meeting
Yarde and Tuilagi would have to go some to play a part versus Wales
Stuart Lancaster fully expected the issue to crop up in this week of all weeks – England-Wales matches generally have a whiff of class warfare about them – so it was no surprise that he launched a pre-emptive strike.
“I’d be very disappointed if the ‘arrogant English’ thing was laid against us, because I don’t think it would be a fair reflection of this group of people,” he said at the red-rose camp in Surrey on Monday. It was a fair point, but the reigning Six Nations champions will still travel to Twickenham on Sunday with the A-word on the tips of their tongues.
This stuff goes back decades. It was in the late 1970s that Phil Bennett, as fine an outside-half as ever played the game, famously delivered the most resonant of captain’s speeches. “Look what the bastards have done to Wales,” he is faithfully reported to have said. “They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you’re playing this afternoon.” Come on, man! Stop beating about the bush!
Then there was the 1980 game at Twickenham, played against a background of industrial strife: a match that would still rank as the most fractious England-Wales contest in living memory had it not been comfortably surpassed by the brutal 15-rounder staged in Cardiff seven years later. And if anyone thinks these high jinks are a thing of the past, they were not at the Millennium Stadium a mere 12 months ago when Lancaster’s side disappeared under an avalanche of red-shirted patriotic fervour. Maybe the coach should pick Alan Pardew for this one, just in case things get tasty.
As a matter of fact, the age-old stereotype about the England rugby team being full of hyphenated cravats fresh out of public school no longer holds (although it was accurate enough once upon a time). There is a high proportion of state-educated players in the current starting line-up, just as there were significant numbers in the side that won the World Cup in 2003. As Lancaster noted yesterday, the idea is to draw on the broadest possible base of talent, not the wealthiest base.
Not that he will be selecting from a cast of thousands for Sunday’s contest. Even though two of his most effective attacking backs, the London Irish wing Marland Yarde and the Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, are spending the week training with the Test squad and are therefore theoretically in the mix after long-term injury, they have no realistic chance of returning to the match-day party unless injuries kick in over the next couple of days.
“They would have to go some to play a part against Wales,” confirmed Lancaster, who is expected to make just one enforced change to the side that started the game against Ireland 10 days ago: Ben Morgan of Gloucester at No 8 for the incapacitated Billy Vunipola of Saracens.
“Marland has been back with us for a little while now but Manu has played only two matches this season and has not trained with us since we went to Wales last season. I think the people who played against Ireland deserve another go.
“Wales are a very experienced side and I have great respect for the achievements of Warren Gatland [the Red Dragons’ head coach who guided the Lions to a series victory over the Wallabies in Australia last summer]. It will be a good tactical challenge, but that challenge is not only at head-coach level. It’s about the whole management team, not just one man. And while they’ll put a challenge to us, we’ll be putting one to them. It was a difficult day for us in Cardiff last year but this is a different game.”
Tom Johnson, the Exeter flanker, was a warmish favourite to fill the vacancy on the England bench before last weekend’s Premiership victory over London Irish and his odds have shortened considerably since, thanks to a man-of-the-match effort at Sandy Park. But Lancaster was equally animated yesterday on the subject of the Devonians’ uncapped hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, who made his first league start against the Exiles and played a blinder.
“There shouldn’t be wholesale changes to this current group ahead of next year’s World Cup, assuming we’ve been accurate in our predictions on player development, but we won’t be closing the door on bringing in new faces,” the coach said. “If you look at Jack Nowell [the Exeter wing who came from the back end of nowhere to force a place in this Six Nations side], he’s made the biggest jump of anyone, and it’s his temperament that has allowed him to deal with it. Cowan-Dickie is another who has the potential to come through quickly.”
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