Stuart Lancaster refuses to confirm Chris Robshaw as his England captain
England coach will use form and fitness to decide leader for autumn internationals
There are no certainties in rugby at its most elevated level: it was a reasonably safe bet that no England player would make a complete berk of himself during last year's World Cup in New Zealand, yet from the tournament's earliest stages they were queuing up to do exactly that. Even so, the current red rose captain Chris Robshaw must have thought he was nailed on to retain the armband in November, when the best of the southern hemisphere come knocking on Twickenham's door. If he did, he can think again.
"We haven't decided on the captaincy yet," the head coach Stuart Lancaster said yesterday, and he meant it. "Chris has clearly done a fantastic job and there is no reason why he wouldn't be strongly considered for the autumn internationals, but we pick the team first and the captain second. It's the only way to do it. When we go into camp in the last week of October we'll see who's available, look at form and fitness and make a call. Ideally, when we do name a captain it will be for the four-match series."
In light of Robshaw's leadership contribution over the last eight months – the Harlequins flanker started the 2012 Six Nations as a Test rookie and ended the season as an inspirational skipper who rightly commanded the respect of opponents in every corner of Europe and beyond – this reluctance to re-appoint him at the earliest available opportunity appeared more than a little capricious. But Lancaster is not the whimsical sort. He sees it as his job to keep the players honest, and if that means starting with the most honest player of the lot, so be it.
"I think it's too early to say this guy or that guy is going to lead the team," he continued. "I wouldn't describe this captaincy thing as overplayed, exactly – it's a big job, obviously – but having a strong leadership group around the captain is equally important. The decision-makers are vital: the scrum-half, the outside-half, the line-out caller. You can have a fantastic captain, but if you don't have someone running the game from No 10, you can forget it."
Lancaster was deeply impressed by the way the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley stepped into the leadership role in South Africa last June, when a busted thumb forced Robshaw out of the third and final meeting with the Springboks in Port Elizabeth – a game England drew, thereby avoiding a series whitewash. "It was an example of seamless transition," the coach said. "If you look at that performance, Chris was missed on the field but Dylan did a fabulous job of captaining the side. We have to be able to change and adapt as we go."
Suddenly, Lancaster is spoilt for choice. Robshaw, who must still be considered a warm favourite to lead out the team against Fiji in a little over seven weeks, is having the time of his life at club level as Harlequins respond positively to every move he makes. Hartley, meanwhile, was described as "world class" by the Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder after a virtuoso display against Exeter earlier this month. All things considered, the placement of the captain's asterisk in the Twickenham match programme is the least of the coach's problems.
Injuries are already a more pressing concern and Lancaster knows there is more orthopaedic trauma on the immediate horizon as the bulk of his elite players prepare for the opening rounds of the Heineken Cup. Ben Foden, the Northampton back, is out of the autumn games with mangled ankle ligaments, while the Leicester flanker Tom Croft is also on the long-term casualty list. Two other first-choice players, Croft's scrum-half clubmate Ben Youngs and the London Irish prop Alex Corbisiero, have not laced up a pair of boots in anger since the tour of Springbok country.
"We're sound in some areas – we have good options at outside-half and in the back row, while scrum-half is a real strength for us at the moment – but weaker in others," the coach acknowledged, openly placing the wing and hooker positions in the latter category. Together with his forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, and the two back-line specialists Andy Farrell and Mike Catt, the boss is travelling the length and breadth of the Premiership landscape in an effort to identify the men most likely to give the Beautiful South a northern reality check.
Despite the decision to add Catt to the coaching team on a full-time basis, Lancaster intends to play a central role in on-field preparations for the Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand fixtures. "I didn't spent 20 years of my life preparing to coach at this level to give up now," he said, a little waspishly. "I'll be involved in every area of the operation, because that's a head coach's job. However, the role I'm playing is a wide-ranging one and there are a lot of plates that need to be kept spinning simultaneously.
"While I've been formulating the overall attacking framework, there have been times when I've felt unable to give the players quite enough detail. Mike showed in South Africa that he has the skill set to provide that kind of detail and his contribution persuaded me that we could make the coaching dynamic work as a four rather than a three. I'm happy he's part of the team."
England will prepare for the forthcoming series at the FA's new 330-acre national football centre at St George's Park in Burton-on-Trent, although Test weeks will continue to be spent amid the baronial luxury of the Pennyhill Park country hotel on the outskirts of Bagshot. Did Lancaster have a minimum requirement in terms of results at this early stages of proceedings?
"To beat Fiji, and then see where we are," he replied. "I'm not going to say I'd be satisfied with three wins out of four, because that would suggest I'd be happy to lose one. It goes without saying that we're looking to win every game."
Early decisions: The issues facing England
The coaching dynamic
Who does what, and when? Andy Farrell's volte-face - having rejected England in favour of Saracens, he promptly changed his mind - and the cementing of Mike Catt's position means the think tank is bigger than Lancaster initially planned. He must find a way of avoiding the "too many cooks" syndrome.
The hooker shortage
Dylan Hartley's strong start to the season has been reassuring enough, but a worrying vacuum has opened up behind the aggressive Northampton front-rower. Who to fast-track as an understudy? Joe Gray's big-game experience with Harlequins gives him a shot, but Tom Youngs of Leicester has some highly influential supporters.
Both Mike Brown of Harlequins and Alex Goode of Saracens made their first Test starts on the summer tour of South Africa. As no one would describe them as peas from the same pod, the coach must decide who best suits the system. Goode’s goal-kicking talents may count in his favour.
Choice at No 10
A difficult one. Toby Flood and Owen Farrell are the outsidehalves in the elite squad, but neither can claim to be the form playmaker in the country – a description best suited to the uncapped Freddie Burns of Gloucester. Lancaster must make the right call here because the back division is malfunctioning.
No 8 quandary
By common consent, the thirtysomething Nick Easter is playing the most creative rugby of his career. The problem? Easter is not in the England running. Ben Morgan is Lancaster's work in progress, but his habit of drifting out of games leaves him prey to the more industrious Thomas Waldrom of Leicester.
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