It sounds brutally harsh to any fair-minded soul, but there are those among rugby’s chattering classes who seriously argue that Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, should look on his three consecutive Six Nations runner-up campaigns as three failures. “Show us a good loser,” they say, “and we’ll show you a loser.”
These people are unconvinced by Lancaster’s management of the national side, despite overwhelming evidence in his favour, and although they are not quite brave enough to say so in public right now, they will feel a little bolder if things go badly wrong during this summer’s three-Test series in New Zealand, where England have won only twice in a dozen attempts stretching back more than half a century.
Key players for the summer tours
Key players for the summer tours
Manu Tuilagi should be back in time for England against the All Blacks
Andrew Trimble, the Ulster wing, has never performed better at Test level than he did during the recent Six Nations
The dropping of captain, Kelly Brown, following the defeat to Ireland was a peculiar one. He will be needed for the three Tests in the Americas
Once Jonathan Davies regains full fitness, he will add a serious threat to the Welsh threequarter line
Leaving aside what Basil Fawlty would have called the “bleeding obvious” – that any trip to the Land of the Long White Shroud is pig-awkward – it is pertinent to point that on the last two visits, England were their own worst enemies (if only just). In 2008, they refused to help the Auckland police with their inquiries into alleged sexual shenanigans and left the country to deafening choruses of “good riddance”. Three years later at the World Cup, their behaviour was even worse than their rugby, covering the full range from tacky to tawdry.
Is it tempting fate to suggest that on Lancaster’s watch, they will clean up their act off the field and play some rugby worth watching on it? A strong sense of common purpose during the Six Nations suggests there is at least a chance of them plotting a course around New Zealand that does not involve a visit to the cells. As for their form, it could be an awful lot worse. But for a desperate start against France that had more than a touch of Sod’s Law about it, they would have won the title – and this without the wing Marland Yarde and, for the most part, the centre Manu Tuilagi, not to mention three Test Lions up front (four, if you count the prop Dan Cole, who broke down with injury before the tournament reached its mid-point).
No one in his right mind would make England favourites to beat the world champions on their own mudheaps but they have built themselves a pack capable of giving Richie McCaw and company a proper hurry-up and finally pieced together a midfield worthy of the name. A victory, perhaps in the last Test in Hamilton, is not out of the question.
If the new Six Nations champions could be granted two heartfelt wishes, Brian O’Driscoll would “do a Sinatra” by rethinking his retirement plans and the international fixture planners would find them some serious Test opposition this summer. Heaven knows, a Argentina side in full warpaint would be a handful – particularly up there in the northern badlands of Tucuman and Resistencia (one hell of a name for a rugby town). But the demands of the southern hemisphere Rugby Championship will take precedence, forcing the Puma selectors to pick understrength line-ups for the business in June.
What will Ireland do without the wondrous O’Driscoll? Presumably, they’ll struggle…at least for a while. The whole point about once-in-a-generation players is that there are never two of them, and it may be a very long time before a worthy successor is identified, nurtured and given the degree of top-level exposure necessary to play the role famously mastered by the great Dubliner. O’Driscoll’s long-time partner, Gordon D’Arcy, is also getting on a bit, so one way or another, that green-shirted midfield is in a funny old place all of a sudden.
There again, not every international side has an individual as effective as Joe Schmidt in the plotting and planning department. The New Zealander has raised Ireland’s attacking game several notches since succeeding Declan Kidney nine months ago – has Andrew Trimble, the Ulster wing, ever performed better at Test level? – and it was no mean feat for the back row to operate so effectively during the Six Nations having been deprived of a flanker as good as Sean O’Brien (not to mention Stephen Ferris). Well as Chris Robshaw performed for England in the breakaway position, those who gave the “team of the tournament” berth to Chris Henry were not far wrong.
Schmidt has surrounded himself with resourceful people, most of them fellow southern hemisphere types: John Plumtree, the kiwi who coaches the forwards, has rich experience on both sides of the Equator; the Australian defence strategist Les Kiss is highly regarded by his peers; David Nucifora, another Wallaby sort, knows his way around the “high performance” role. The Irish have taken the international route before, most notably with Warren Gatland, but they may really have nailed it this time.
Given the likely poverty of the opposition in South America, however, we will not know until the autumn if life after O’Driscoll will be in any way enjoyable – or even liveable. And by then, the World Cup will be looming.
What is that strange sound we hear? Why, that must be Scott Johnson, clutching at straws and ripping them from the ground in filthy great handfuls. Johnson’s work as head coach was not being particularly well received by the rugby cognoscenti north of the border even before the thumping in Ireland, the damp-squib disappointment against England, the balls-up against France and the capitulation in Wales, all of which added up to a truly miserable Six Nations, alleviated only by a last-kick victory over the Italian wooden-spooners. Now, he is about as popular as an investment banker with a sideline in estate agency.
Not that he will be spending much longer in the role: Vern Cotter, the New Zealander who has driven the crack French club Clermont Auvergne to a very high standing in the European club game, will be arriving at Murrayfield in June, with Johnson moving upstairs. But some of the latter’s responses to well-earned criticism over the last few weeks, generally featuring smart-arsed one-liners that failed to endear him to his interrogators, made a bad job worse. Cotter had better bring some people skills with him if he is not to get off on the wrong foot.
For all that, Carwyn James himself might have struggled to make something of this Scotland team. The peculiar dropping of the captain Kelly Brown after the defeat in Dublin was down to Johnson alone, but he can hardly be blamed for his failure to invent a Test-class No 10 or produce a half-decent front row out of thin air. Scotland are the weakest of the home nations, by a distance, because they have the smallest, least talented pool of players, by a distance.
This summer’s tour activity has “calamity” written all over it. The Scots will play three Tests in the Americas – against the United States in Houston, Canada in Toronto and Argentina, at a venue yet to be decided, none of which they can afford to lose – before crossing the ocean for a one-off confrontation with the Springboks, who should just be hitting their stride by then. Thanks a bunch.
Come the World Cup, they will have to play the South Africans again – a match they cannot conceivably win, on current evidence. If they also lose to Samoa, who will put together a side of outrageous talent and play as if they mean it, their supporters may find themselves looking back on the miseries of the 2014 Six Nations with something approaching fondness .
Warren Gatland may yet decide that his long-serving Lions – Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and Mike Phillips – are the men best suited to the rigours of next year’s showpiece tournament, and if he does, he may turn out to be right. There are times when all four of them look like world-beaters and when they do it simultaneously, Wales produce the kind of rugby that took them within touching distance of the global final in 2011.
There again, he may turn out to be wrong – and he wouldn’t be the first New Zealander to gamble on age and lose. Seventeen years ago, John Hart framed his World Cup strategy around the continuing presence of such luminaries as Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce. None of them quite made it to the 1999 competition and as a result, the All Blacks went in light on experience. “If I’m honest, we knew we’d be vulnerable if we ran into a side playing well,” admitted their young captain, Taine Randall, a couple of years later. “When France hit form in the semi-final, we didn’t know how to stop them.”
On their day – and their days still come around with encouraging regularity – Wales are capable of beating most teams and finishing within five points of the very small number who continue to lord it over them. Once Jonathan Davies, a serious talent at outside centre, regains full fitness (he should be back in the pink in time for the two meetings with the Springboks in June), that pulverising threequarter line of theirs will look a lot more threatening than it did at Twickenham a little over a week ago.
But they are in urgent need of some freshening up in the tight five, and there are worrying signs of decline at half-back. Whatever happened to Lloyd Williams, widely regarded as the scrum-half most likely to this time last year? What about James Hook, perhaps the most exquisitely gifted midfielder to be marginalised by anyone, ever? As for the political situation west of the Severn…it’s a nightmare, pure and simple. With so many leading players fleeing the country, Gatland will have to work overtime to maintain cohesion.
Those Six Nations defeats in Dublin and London far outweighed the victories over a callow Italy, a messed-up France and an away-with-the-fairies Scotland. Given the presence of England and Australia in the most bitterly competitive of next year’s World Cup pools, the runes do not read well.