The home dressing room at Twickenham has a different look to my day. The big box changing room, with its wooden cubicles, into which everyone used to walk and say “Over there in the corner, that’s where Jonny sat”, is gone. For too long England have languished in the hangover from 2003, burdened by trying to emulate that team. Now at last there is a growing sense that Stuart Lancaster and this England side are creating their “own” team, a fresh, new team.
This is a different team, changing in a different room – one with all the modern sporting requirements but one that also still has a reminder of the heritage of which these players will become a part, keeping a link with the past but not being suffocated by it. The names of former players are listed around the room, a reminder of what comes with wearing the white shirt – yet this is a new environment. The players have contributed to the new look and there is increasingly an air of unity and purpose. Add all the developments the Rugby Football Union is putting into the training facilities at Pennyhill Park – which, it has to be said, is long overdue – and there are good foundations in place for Lancaster’s England.
That brings benefits on the pitch and Saturday was an example. It was an ugly win for England but no less worthy for the manner in which Chris Robshaw’s men beat an Australian side that, we should not forget, recently put more than 30 points on the All Blacks. There was a steady confidence about what England did, battling through the tough patches and winning on Saturday will have only added to that. In the run up to the 2003 World Cup England had a knack of winning ugly when necessary and that played its part in the ultimate achievement.
England have the confidence that comes out from winning and that can’t be understated. That game was so important for their immediate progress, people will knock the performance, say it was not where it needs to be, but the first game of an autumn season never is because it takes a time to gel back together.
There was one partnership that did gel effectively on Saturday. I was impressed by Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury in the engine room. Lancaster is sure to make some changes for Argentina – with the All Blacks in mind I would like to see Mike Brown, excellent against Australia, rested and Ben Foden given a run at 15, Ben Youngs should start at No 9 and Luther Burrell deserves an outing in the centre. Christian Wade, who has been in scintillating form for his club for two seasons now, is worthy of a position on the wing, especially with Chris Ashton quiet against Australia and coming out of the defensive pattern to help Australia score their try.
But I would give Billy Vunipola another go at No 8 and certainly keep Lawes and Launchbury together. They have earned it.
There was a lot of unseen pressure on Lawes because he had a new role in calling the lineouts and doing that in front of 80,000 people at Twickenham is very different to doing it in club colours. I thought he acquitted himself well and gave a solid performance. Launchbury’s was a workhorse-like performance, willing and dependable as ever. There were several lineouts that went astray, but that’s never down just to one individual, whether it’s Tom Youngs, the lifter or the jumper, so that is something to work on. But I was more than happy with their pairing, the work-rate and what they brought to the game. Make the lineout more consistent and these two really will be a force to be reckoned with.
Geoff Parling is a fine player and a brilliant leader but Lancaster has always said he will pick on form – as he did with Lee Dickson – and at the moment Lawes and Launchbury are just a notch ahead of Parling on this season’s performance. In my mind there is no way you can drop Lawes or Launchbury. Courtney in particular is back to his form of 2010. They are the men in possession and they should stay there. That huge competition for the shirt is indicative of what Lancaster is beginning to get across the pitch. We talk about building for 2015, the need for depth, and that is what you can see happening.
I wrote ahead of the Australia game about the England bench, how strong it looked, and it played a huge part in the win. The boost when you have that many caps on the bench is just enormous for a side, when you have players of the calibre of Dave Wilson, Foden, Flood and Ben Youngs, who in particular made a real impact when he came on. They could all start against Argentina and I hope Wilson does – Alex Corbisiero is more of a certainty on Saturday. Ben Morgan has not had a stellar season but he is still a big, strong, abrasive ball-carrier who will be hungry to get his place back.
The more competition you can create, the more hunger it creates in individuals and actually it creates more of a collective unity. You respect the guys who are ahead of you, or the guys who are pushing you. It is exactly what Lancaster needs to drive the bid for a Grand Slam or Six Nations title next season.
Captain has coped superbly with tricky spell
I was delighted for Chris Robshaw on Saturday. Having been a captain, I can understand the pressures he is under, and just as equally the pressures you put on yourself to perform. There is that constant striving to produce the perfect performance. When that doesn’t happen you can be hard on yourself. And on top of what you want from yourself there is plenty that others want too – being captain brings extra attention from the media and the outside world.
There has been plenty of talk about who should be England’s No 7. Should we have an out-and-out openside? I pushed for Matt Kvesic last year – he is one for the future, an outstanding openside in the making, but I couldn’t push his cause at the moment and claim he is playing better than Robshaw.
Robshaw has done a great job and mentally has been very strong, through the leadership issues of last autumn over his decision-making and a tough summer not going with the Lions. It was right to rest him from the Argentina trip but we have seen in the past what can happen when captains don’t play. I witnessed it myself with Steve Borthwick, who was a good captain, missed one summer tour through injury and never got his place back. All those doubts go through your mind but Robshaw has come back stronger and fitter.
The answer at 7 in the long run may be Luke Wallace or Kvesic but at the moment Robshaw is doing an outstanding job. He may not be everyone’s cup of tea: being a leader you can never worry about that. There will always be questions over how you do it – there were questions about Martin Johnson’s leadership from time to time, incredible as that may be to think now. All you can do is go out and play and show that you deserve that shirt.