Six Nations: Stuart Lancaster uses lessons in history for England's French examination
World Cup failure very much in coach's mind before Les Bleus visit Twickenham
Stuart Lancaster may be wary of raising the spectre of England's hopelessly inadequate campaign at the last World Cup as a warning from history – he decided long ago to use that miserable experience only as an occasional reference point in his dealings with a new generation of red-rose players, rather than as a recurring theme – but with a Six Nations match against France looming large in his thoughts, there is no better time to play the caution card.
Asked whether this weekend's contest with Philippe Saint-André's out-of-form Tricolores at Twickenham might have something in common with the quarter-final tie against Marc Lièvremont's equally discordant side in Auckland back in 2011 – a game that brought English interest in the competition to an abrupt end – the head coach showed little hesitation in agreeing.
"I see a parallel in terms of a backs-against-the-wall mentality in the French side," he said yesterday. "They'd had a pretty difficult time in the pool stage during the World Cup, but for 60 minutes of that quarter-final we saw them at their best. Playing what I would call a deconstructed form of attack, they came alive. They wanted to prove a point back then, and they'll want to prove one this weekend – just as we did during the autumn, when we played the All Blacks after losing to Australia and South Africa and coming in for some criticism.
"Even though France have lost twice in this tournament, there were times in both games when they played exciting rugby, going at the opposition with such pace, from such depth. They have very good players: it doesn't matter who they pick or where they pick them, they're a dangerous team. You only have to look at the quality of their forwards: they have the best line-out in the competition, their scrum has been dominant and with their penalty count down around seven per game, they're also disciplined."
All things considered, then, the message was clear – not least to the Harlequins prop Joe Marler, who had been quoted as saying that if the next World Cup was to be played now, rather than in 2015, he and his countrymen would fancy their chances. "From my point of view," mused Lancaster, "we can't get ahead of ourselves. Talk of a World Cup? On a Monday, with France coming on Saturday?" And by way of illustration, he added, almost as an afterthought, that Marler would have enough on his plate dealing with Nicolas Mas, the strongman front-rower from Perpignan.
Thanks largely to the benefits of the recently renegotiated long-term agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs, Lancaster has no new injury concerns. The Wasps flanker James Haskell, mightily impressive in Ireland nine days ago, did not train yesterday because he was suffering from a chill, while the Leicester outside-half Toby Flood required treatment on a minor calf strain, but those two aside, fitness worries were restricted to the usual: Ben Morgan's ankle, Freddie Burns' knee and Jonathan Joseph's foot.
It now seems unlikely that Burns, the Gloucester outside-half, or Joseph, the London Irish centre, will feature in this Six Nations, but neither would currently be well placed to break into the starting line-up anyway. Morgan, on the other hand, will certainly get another run if he recovers in time. Currently Lancaster's first-choice No 8, he has a 50-50 chance of making the home game against Italy a fortnight on Sunday.
France do not have a nailed-down equivalent of the RFU-Premiership arrangement, under which the England coaches are guaranteed pretty much all the player access they need. Saint-André, now in his second Six Nations as coach of Les Bleus, has spent much of the last month bemoaning his lot in this regard, and when pressed on the subject yesterday, Lancaster said he understood his opposite number's frustration.
"I don't know exactly how it works over there," said the Cumbrian, "but as far as we're concerned over here, the club-country agreement and the England Qualified Player scheme are really positive initiatives. They were brought in when I started with the RFU in 2008 and we're seeing the fruits of them now. We have a majority of English players performing in the Premiership, which is critical for me because it means we have a lot of talent across the positions. The quality of the younger players coming through is as high as I've known it."
After years of political pushing and shoving between the governing body and the clubs who provide it with players, it was almost blissful to hear a red-rose coach wax lyrical about the positive relationship between the two wings of the professional game. And there was more. No sooner had Lancaster finished praising the top-flight teams for their development work than Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back, chipped in with a few pennies' worth of his own.
"We've made a habit of finishing our games really strongly," said Goode, one of the principal contributors to England's victory over Ireland last time out, "and I think the fact that we play in a really tight Premiership has something to do with it. There are always arguments about whether there should be relegation, or whether we should play our rugby in really bad conditions, but having to play under pressure virtually every week – so many club games are decided at the very end – makes a real difference."
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