Six Nations 2014: Time for humility in house of Lancaster
England's players and fans need to keep expectations in check ahead of assault on the World Cup
It will not have escaped the notice of Mike Brown, England's serial man-of-the-match award winner in the Six Nations Championship, and an exultant double try-scorer in Italy yesterday, that his next assignment in the white jersey will be against the All Blacks in June. If the Harlequins full-back can wear that winning snarl of his in the lair of the world's best, England will truly begin to believe in their World Cup chances in 2015, having finished in second place in the Six Nations for the fifth time in seven years.
On England's summer tour – three Tests in Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch, plus a midweek date with the Crusaders – their aims will be victory, of course, but also to keep their game plan, pride and personnel intact. They will be obliged to play the first Test without the players from the clubs who have reached the Aviva Premiership final a week beforehand; and that might rule out Brown and his fellow Harlequins such as Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Joe Marler.
At the moment, Saracens and Northampton are in pole position, so England might enter Auckland's Eden Park, with Bath's fly-half George Ford making his first start for his country. After a few minutes as a substitute against Wales, when he hugged his pal Owen Farrell as he came on, and a further 10 minutes in Rome yesterday, coming on as the pivot with the Saracens No 10 shifted to inside centre, this would be Ford facing the world champions at their greatest fortress. Wow.
Brown has mixed memories of Auckland: fined and reprimanded after a night out there on England's 2008 tour, he was cast into the international wilderness and not selected for the 2011 World Cup when Delon Armitage and Ben Foden were the men in possession. That chequered past is another country, right now. Brown is in his pomp and he epitomises this England's insistence on breaking the gainline at every turn, whether by a single metre or many. The team is more than the sum of their parts, even if some of the parts remain faulty.
The defence is cohesive, daunting and dominant. In attack, the passing has lapses, and wasted overlaps are a running sore. Most fascinatingly, if we accept Wales have to an extent been "worked out" by opponents after six years of Warren Gatland's coaching, you can bet the tactics employed by Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, will be analysed to the nth degree by the New Zealanders and others as England go through the 15 matches remaining before the World Cup at home in 2015.
The assertion on Friday by Lancaster's right-hand man, Andy Farrell, that England have options to keep the opposition guessing will be tested by the best. The autumn brings New Zealand, South Africa, Samoa and Australia to Twickenham.
Before we go too mad in praise, remember England's Six Nations efforts have made no difference to their world ranking: still fourth behind New Zealand, South Africa (the last team Lancaster's men have yet to beat) and Australia. By losing only to France in this Six Nations they have reprised the specialism of England from 1996 to 2002, when they lost one Championship match each season. Four times out of seven, it cost them the title. But we all know what happened in 2003.
England must not get carried away. Sponsors and supporters will flock to England and fawn around them. Happy selfies with Daniel Craig or Manchester United players are fine on a celebratory occasion such as last week's Triple Crown. But other than when the magnificent Courtney Lawes is soaring in the line-out, or flying headlong to cut down a fly-half, feet must be kept on the ground. Lancaster's ongoing hunt for humility must continue.
The weight of numbers of England's ball carriers give time to Farrell and Care. The occasionally petulant Farrell's show and go, even if slightly mechanical, is grand evidence of his confidence to go with his goal-kicking. Of course, the funny thing about a settled team – England used only 18 starters in this Championship – is it can raise doubt about the reserves. Mako Vunipola's scrummaging needs work. There may be opportunities on the wings for the recently injured Marland Yarde and Christian Wade, while Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole may return to the front row.
Overall, the first-choice line-up appears at least two-thirds settled, or comfortably covered. Handy additions would be a hooker back-up for Dylan Hartley to dovetail seamlessly with the line-out jumpers and an understudy to Robshaw. It was precisely this time last year, after the crushing loss in Cardiff, that the captain said: "It's tough but as hard as it is to lose to Wales, we must learn from it." England have done that, and then some.
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