James Lawton: A caretaker of courage, but bravery is not enough to return to the elite

What happened at Murrayfield is unlikely to be repeated when the opposition stiffens
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Owen Farrell didn't have a storming game but he brought something that in all the circumstances had to be weighed in gold. He looked as if he would soon enough pull his chair up under the table, settle down and before anyone might have imagined start shouting the odds.

The big question is, of course, to do with which coach will benefit from a touch of such life-giving gravitas: interim boss Stuart Lancaster, the man who has been given the mother of all clean-up jobs by Twickenham, or someone much further along his career path, such as South African Nick Mallett?

It may sound less than generous to the man who delivered England's first win in Edinburgh for eight years but if ever a team looked in need of the attention of a man much more familiar with the demands of the international game it was the one who profited from Scotland's chronic deficiency in the coup de grace department. England won, which considering the way they had been pieced together since the nightmare denouement in New Zealand was probably as much as anyone could expect.

Still, it was largely a mess – and the more so it looked while coming to it from the impressive evidence that France's new coach Philippe Saint-André has the kind of nascent fire-power about which Lancaster, with just two more games in which to underline his claims on a permanent appointment, for some time can only fantasise.

As Scotland's coach, Andy Robinson, almost choked with frustration while discussing his team's failure to exploit vast advantages in territory and possession, Lancaster chose to dwell on the spirit of defiance displayed by his young team. There weren't, in all honesty, too many other places to go. Charlie Hodgson reminded us that he is a finely gifted footballer who before his decisive swoop on the hapless clearing kick of Dan Parks had never been quite able to seize his moments.

Brad Barritt tackled like a fiend, suggesting that he might have been born for the job of nailing flying Scotsmen. Chris Robshaw's debut as captain, on the slender base of one cap, naturally enough was a little short of authority but he is plainly the kind of abrasive scrapper most coaches would be happy to have in a tough situation. There are going to be quite a few more of these, and perhaps not later than the next game in Rome, where the Italians under their new French coach, Jacques Brunel, will surely be waiting with increased expectations after the promising glimmerings they showed at the Stade de France.

Yes, England had a few such flashes of light in a mostly blue tide. Ben Foden and David Strettle had moments of illumination in the back line and Chris Ashton at times looked like someone who might be emerging from the throes of delayed adolescence. The progress of Ben Youngs, such an exciting possibility in his first few big-stage entrances, continues to be stalled but there are still moments when he looks like a potentially serious article.

When you put all the positives together this was still an extremely raw England, a conclusion that could only be deepened by the flashes of quality later displayed in Dublin, where Wales and Ireland looked at least one notch above. England, to be fair to Lancaster, were bound to look unformed after the convulsions of the World Cup misadventures, and far more able squads have dwindled under the force of a Scottish onslaught.

What Lancaster might fairly claim is an impressive degree of resistance to the idea that the Scots, even with their desperate inability to finish off any argument, were simply piling up too much pressure. The trouble is that he is in charge not of some aspiring member of rugby's third world but a failed behemoth with huge commercial opportunities and a playing population of more than a million. When you remembered this, England's showing was – it has to be said – another chapter of an ongoing scandal.

Lancaster can talk as long as he likes about the need to put down new building blocks and the Rugby Football Union is obliged to react patiently. But this can only be for so long. In this case a thousand good intentions are far from guaranteed to cover all the required ground.

England produced a brave win but they couldn't promise any swift return to the elite. What happened at Murrayfield is unlikely to be repeated when the opposition stiffens.

Lancaster has tackled the years of decline and indulgence with considerable courage but there is a huge divide between someone who troubleshoots and another who knows how to make a team at the highest level. For the new man the chasm still yawns.