Stuart Lancaster: Thinking outside the Springboks
It will be a baptism of fire for the new England coach with South Africa away but it's all about the bigger picture of a home World Cup in 2015
It is a small mercy for which we can all be thankful: there are 37 full international matches separating England from their home World Cup in 2015, not 39. It sounds so much better, somehow: "The 39 Steps" would have been too unnervingly Hitchcockian. Not that Stuart Lancaster, the newly appointed main man charged with making just a little more sense of the next global gathering than his predecessor, Martin Johnson, made of the last one, is expecting things to go entirely smoothly over the next three and a half years. There are, in true thriller fashion, some nasty shocks in store.
The first of which will not be a shock in the strict sense of the word, for he knows about it already. If England have never lost a Test match to the Springboks in Durban, it is because they have never played the Springboks in Durban. Lancaster's first game as full-time head coach will be against the two-time world champions on the shores of the Indian Ocean in early June and, if the noisy, vibrant, wonderfully exotic rugby community of Kwazulu-Natal generates the kind of atmosphere that made the opening contest of the 2009 British and Irish Lions series such an electrifying occasion, the tourists will do extremely well to escape in one piece.
England have had their successes in the republic down the years, but strange to relate, they have never won at sea level. This makes the third and final Test of this summer's trip, in Port Elizabeth, as daunting as any in recent memory – not least because every high-profile game in that city seems to kick off figuratively as well as literally.
All things considered, the second Test is the most winnable of the three. And that will be played in Johannesburg, at the great highveld fastness of Ellis Park. Thanks a million.
There will be more to come. Much more. Nineteen of the 37 games Lancaster has on his fixture schedule between now and the curtain-up match at Twickenham in 2015 will be against southern-hemisphere opposition and while one or two of them will be sure-fire victories – Fiji, the abject failures of the last World Cup and a team who rarely punch their weight when touring north of the Equator, will be among England's opponents at Twickenham this autumn – the majority will be pig-awkward at best and close to impossible at worst. Two Tests in Argentina next year, when the leading players will be in Australia with the Lions? Ouch. Three Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand in the summer of 2014. Double ouch. Or, to be absolutely precise, triple ouch.
As Lancaster has his opponents – people who, in the grand tradition of damning with faint praise, credit him with a sound performance in the Six Nations while questioning his credentials as a coach on the wider international front – there will no doubt be a good deal of flak flying around before, and perhaps after, the Springbok business is concluded. But Clive Woodward, in pre-knighthood days, hardly had it all his own way against the not-so-Beautiful South at the start of his red-rose stewardship. Two draws and seven defeats, some of them embarrassingly heavy, in his first nine entanglements with the Sanzar nations did nothing to suggest that, by the time his team took their 19th shot against them, they would be winning more than they were losing.
Unlike Woodward, who took an extremely fluid approach to selection in his early years as head coach, Lancaster is determined to make continuity his friend. Form and fitness willing, the players who put 30 points on Ireland at Twickenham a fortnight ago stand every chance of taking the field at King's Park – the best stadium in world rugby – 10 weeks from now, although the Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs is probably favourite to displace Lee Dickson of Northampton, always assuming the Rugby Football Union disciplinarians do not throw the book at him for his meat-headed assault on the London Irish flanker Jamie Gibson last weekend.
According to the former England coach Brian Ashton, who was given approximately five minutes to build a side capable of challenging for the Webb Ellis Cup rather than the best part of an entire World Cup cycle, Lancaster has no overriding need to chop and change his personnel for 18 months. Of the current first-choice side, only five – the full-back Ben Foden, the wing David Strettle, the locks Mouritz Botha and Geoff Parling and the aforementioned Dickson – will be 30 or older come the big event on home soil.
And while Woodward, fast-tracked into the England job by an RFU struggling to get its head around the sport's sudden embrace of professionalism, consulted all and sundry in an urgent effort to acquaint himself with the available talent, Lancaster knows as much as anyone – and far more than most – about those capable of challenging for Test places over the coming years.
Some of the names on his "possible" list are blindingly obvious: it does not take a soothsayer to predict that Courtney Lawes, Dave Attwood, Tom Wood and Joe Marler will press hard. But what are we to make of Scott Spurling, or Luke Cowan-Dickie, or Anthony Watson, or Maro Itoje? Not as much as the head coach does at the moment, that's for sure. (For the record, Spurling is a Saracens hooker, Cowan-Dickie a prop at Exeter, Watson a back-three player with London Irish and Itoje an Under-18s flanker, also at Saracens. Each is a hot tip for the top).
Not all England coaches of recent vintage have nurtured relationships with the elite clubs, yet Lancaster considers it a fundamental part of his job. So he should, not least because he owes his appointment, at least in part, to the Premiership majority – Sir Ian McGeechan, Conor O'Shea, Richard Hill – on the advisory panel convened by the new RFU chief executive, Ian Ritchie. For the first time since the collapse of amateurism, the governing body and the clubs are all in it together, to coin a phrase. The Professional Game Board, with its representatives from both sides of what used to be a barely bridgeable divide, is now a driving force rather than a talking shop. If Lancaster has big challenges ahead, at least he can count on a stable political base from which to operate.
What is more, two of the southern-hemisphere nations who will impact so heavily on his World Cup preparations are in a state of flux themselves. When the All Blacks come to these islands in November, some of those most responsible for recapturing the Webb Ellis Cup last November – Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino, to name but two – will be conspicuous by their absence. The Springboks have a new head coach of their own in Heyneke Meyer and must find themselves a whole new team, having kept together the lion's share of the victorious 2007 side in a failed attempt to retain the title in 2011.
Just for once, England start out on this road from the same place as their principal rivals. This is good news for Lancaster. All he has to do now is ensure that his gracious employers find enough money to buy Andy Farrell, his fellow caretaker coach during the Six Nations, out of his Saracens contract. Like charity, continuity begins very close to home.
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