Six Nations: Stuart Lancaster's plan for a summer shake-up during tour of Argentina
England coach to tell key players in one-on-one talks that change is required after humiliation in Cardiff and their places are coming under pressure
The dust from the rubble of England's latest Grand Slam collapse is still settling, but some of the players who found themselves on the painful end of the Welsh wrecking ball in Cardiff at the weekend are already completely covered in the stuff. When they finally brush themselves down, they may find that their places in the red-rose starting line-up have gone the same way as their hopes and dreams of a first Six Nations clean sweep in a decade.
"I don't foresee wholesale changes," said Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, as he sifted through the debris of his first Millennium Stadium experience. "What I do see, definitely, is increased pressure on certain players. I draw a lot of strength from the fact that over the course of the tournament, a lot of people stood up and came through. If you'd told me back in October that Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury and Owen Farrell would be where they are now, I'd have been pretty happy. But we were tested at the highest level in Wales and it was disappointing that we lost composure and allowed the game to slip away."
Lancaster will hold one-on-one discussions with most, if not all, of his current first-choice players before this summer's tour window, when the British and Irish Lions head for Australia and England travel to South America for two difficult Tests in Argentina. "I have to find time to do that," he said. "There are too many lessons to be learnt from what happened at the weekend not to have those talks."
He and the other members of the England think tank – the backs specialist Andy Farrell, the forwards strategist Graham Rowntree and the attacking skills coach Mike Catt – will review the events of the last month and a half in minute detail, but they already know the areas in need of serious attention: the centre partnership and the back three combination. Neither unit is likely to survive intact.
"We need to look at players who can be the point of difference: players who can beat people one on one or go through a hole," Lancaster continued, before confirming that the Gloucester inside centre Billy Twelvetrees was "very much in our thoughts and pushing hard, because a ball-player at No 12 definitely helps". The hallelujahs from the Kingsholm Shed could immediately be heard, together with choruses of "we told you so". Twelvetrees, demoted to the bench after the hard-fought victory over Ireland in Dublin, should have started all five championship matches rather than two of them.
He will be given his head against the Pumas in June, irrespective of whether the incumbent, Brad Barritt, is in the England party. (The resilient Saracens player may yet be selected by the Lions hierarchy, who value his expertise as a defensive kingpin). As for Manu Tuilagi, part game-breaker and part problem player, a move to the wing is a distinct possibility. That would allow Barritt or, perhaps, another Saracen, the uncapped Joel Tomkins, to occupy the No 13 position.
Tuilagi has been a rich source of tries for England this season – without him, they would have been virtually bereft in the five-point department – but when it comes to the vision thing, he resembles a blind man in wraparound sunglasses, fumbling his way around a darkened room. Twice on Saturday, he wasted try-scoring chances. "Everything matters in a game: you have to take opportunities when they're presented," remarked Lancaster, with meaning.
Even if Tuilagi stays put at outside centre, the situation at wing and full-back is certain to alter drastically. Alex Goode may have been the principal source of attacking ideas in recent games, but with Twelvetrees' impending promotion giving England a "second footballer" among the inside backs, the Saracen's lack of pace is likely to cost him. Lancaster is considering a shift to the "strike runner" approach at No 15, which in the first instance should mean a recall for Ben Foden of Northampton.
The other heavy faller is Chris Ashton, whose days as the future of England's back play are now firmly in the past. He may rediscover some of his old pizzazz with Saracens, who will not be short of high-profile matches between now and the end of the club campaign, but the weaknesses in his game, exposed in all their gory detail over the course of the Six Nations, have left the door open for any number of challengers: most obviously Jonny May of Gloucester, Christian Wade of Wasps and two London Irish players, Marland Yarde and Jonathan Joseph.
"Argentina will give us a chance to work with a wider group of players and see who among them can make the transition from club to country and deliver in a hostile environment," Lancaster said. "Overall, I believe we made good progress in the Six Nations and it was hugely pleasing that we put ourselves in a position to win it, even though it ended with Wales doing to us what we'd done to the All Blacks before Christmas. What we need to see now is that depth of talent emerging. In that respect, the summer will be critical."
In July, the head coach will name a new 32-man elite squad. If new-generation players like Vunipola and Launchbury have already been inked in, others are on the point of being rubbed out, even though they were a mere 80 minutes away from landing the ultimate prize in European rugby. It's a cruel world.
Ins and outs
Ben Foden With pace to burn, he would bring a cutting edge to the attack.
Chris Ashton The Six Nations was a terrible struggle. Future selection could be harder still.
Billy Twelvetrees The coming force in midfield, blessed with a full range of skills.
Alex Goode The most intelligent footballer in the back division, but short of speed.
Move him all about?...
Manu Tuilagi Move to the wing beckons as England seek their own Jonah Lomu.
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