What are England looking to get out of this autumn series at Twickenham, above and beyond results that send the crowd home happy? When I was involved in the coaching team, what we most wanted from the pre-Christmas internationals was clear evidence that the players we'd introduced were genuine Test performers. If we reached the end of the November programme saying to each other "yep, we've found another one", we knew some progress had been made.
This will be in the forefront of Stuart Lancaster's mind over the next four weeks: he'll be looking closely at the relative newcomers – at Alex Goode and Charlie Sharples, at Joe Marler and Tom Youngs – and making judgements on exactly how much they can contribute at the top level. This is less a question of skill than of temperament. An example: back in 2008, none of us doubted Danny Cipriani's skill-set as an attacking outside-half, but as the autumn unfolded and we found ourselves being badly dented by the Springboks, it became pretty evident to us that he was struggling with the mental side of his game at that time.
There are a lot of players who handle the pressures of Premiership rugby well enough, but the step up into the Test environment is not an easy one to take. As Stuart continues to build his squad, he'll want to emerge from this fiercely intense month of international activity with a clear idea of who he can trust to deliver on the big occasion and who is at risk of falling short.
Today's contest with Fiji is a fantastic starting point for the side. Whatever the tourists bring to the mix this afternoon, they won't be big on organisation. How can they be? Even though they're missing some of their more familiar European-based names, they've drawn a fair few players from club rugby in Britain and France and are running them alongside inexperienced guys who are still living in the islands. It takes time to pull people together and as time is something they never have, they are bound to struggle for coherence. Also, a big proportion of the squad are on their first trip to the northern hemisphere. You have to think that for them, running out at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people will be a culture shock.
The last thing England need to do is turn this into a game of basketball, but I don't think any side put together by Stuart is at any great risk of committing that particular sin. This is an opportunity for them to get their act together in the technical areas of scrum and line-out – if they are on their game in the tight, I'll be surprised if the match isn't won by the hour mark – and get some patterns bedded in. But they also need to be wary: if they make the mistake of simply running in ones off the scrum-half, the Fijian big-hit tacklers will bury them. England should use Manu Tuilagi's power in midfield to work the opposition centres and have runners sliding in behind him.
I go back a long way with Mike Catt, the new attacking skills coach, and I'll be interested to see what he brings to the mix. One of the criticisms repeatedly thrown at England teams is the shortage of tries and if I know Mike, he'll be working his tail off to put his stamp on things. He won't be struggling for ideas, but he needs to make early strides in bringing them to fruition. With Australia, South African and New Zealand around the corner, life isn't about to get any easier.
You'll forgive me if I express my genuine delight at David Paice's inclusion in the squad for today's game. The hooking position is an issue for England at the moment: Dylan Hartley, the current number one, is unlikely to recover from his knee injury in time to feature in this series and Youngs is a very fresh face indeed. His line-out throwing has come in for some criticism recently and while he shouldn't have too many problems against Fiji if the tempo is right, it will be a different story against the Wallabies, who are always extremely competitive in this crucial department.
Paice is an excellent thrower and he also knows how to boss a scrum. What he doesn't do is talk his way through a game, unlike many other hookers I could mention. Back in 2008, there was a lot of discussion in the England coaching room about who should wear the No 2 shirt. I was very much in David's corner, as you'd expect given my London Irish connections, while Graham Rowntree pushed hard for Hartley. As Graham was the forwards specialist, the argument was his to win.
But I've worked with David for a long time now – funnily enough, we attended the same school in Brisbane – and I know what he brings to a team. For one thing, he's unflappable; for another, he's a tough customer, something of a silent assassin. If I could buy shares in David Paice right now, I'd definitely have my hand in my pocket. England are about to embark on a demanding series of matches against opponents who will ask some serious questions of a newcomer like Youngs. If he fails to come up with the right answers, I can see David's stock rising very quickly.
Brian Smith is rugby director at London Irish and the former England attack coach
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