James Lawton: Lancaster needs spirit of Skinner to stop RFU selecting 'dream ticket'

Some at Twickenham are said to be positively restive over the possibility of a foreign takeover

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The Independent Online

The debate surrounding England's interim coach, Stuart Lancaster, at the Stade de France tomorrow would have been quite unthinkable at the old skirmishing site of Parc des Princes, 20-odd years ago.

It was the quarter-final of the World Cup on a bright autumn day as crisp as a glass of fine Burgundy and England won a stupendous, at times riotously physical match for some extremely basic reasons.

They were harder, more ruthless, young captain Will Carling got under a high ball and touched down with blue shirts decorating him like battle ribbons and Mickey Skinner, the back-row extrovert who favoured a bow tie and flowing locks, stopped the No 8 Marc Cecillon with a tackle that was as pivotal as a landslide.

They were also recognisably England, a team with a recognisably English approach to the game under a tough Yorkshire coach, Geoff Cooke, whose brief was blessedly simple. He had to make a new England in his own image of how best to neutralise the superior artistry of teams like France and Australia.

Lancaster, no doubt, would give much for such brutal simplicities as he attempts to make a crucial, perhaps even decisive, stride in his attempt to come out of the Twickenham shadows and become the permanent replacement for the fallen icon Martin Johnson.

The trouble is that he has not only to beat a talented French side smarting over their profligate slide to a draw against Ireland last weekend but also drive away something that for some aficionados has come to resemble an England dream ticket: Nick Mallett, the experienced, erudite former coach of South Africa and Italy, and Wayne Smith, the man who so brilliantly shaped the All Black back division which helped carry off the last World Cup.

This enthusiasm is at war with a growing belief that while Lancaster may lack that kind of kudos in the international game he has done an excellent job picking through the rubble of England's dismal World Cup campaign, and broken professional values, and forging a team which may not yet have lit up the sky but has certainly produced oodles of commitment and a sharp improvement in discipline on the field.

He has also placed great faith in the ability of Owen Farrell to prove that at No 10 he has the ability to replace the era of Jonny Wilkinson with one of this own.

Lancaster has indeed shown impressive nerve in re-making England. He has handled the pressure of what amounts to a relentlessly demanding audition with considerable phlegm. Yet, still, it would be premature to say that he has burnt off the sophisticated threat of men like Mallett and Smith.

France may not have expressed themselves at all convincingly under new coach and former star Phillipe Saint-André but before their own people, and armed with the extravagant talent of the new try-scoring phenomenon Wesley Fofana, they suggest an inevitable threat to Lancaster's hopes of new momentum.

The central issue is one that simply wasn't on the horizon in that Parc des Princes shoot-out. Cooke was a supreme pragmatist who believed that England's best chance would always lie in an awareness of their most natural game, grinding forward power, and if it was a policy which won few plaudits from the aesthetes it came within a World Cup final of vindication, when England decided to throw the ball against David Campese's Australians and paid a fatal price.

For the Rugby Football Union committee which must decide on the new coach the question is whether they have enough positive evidence to entrust England's future with the scantily experienced but so far impressive Lancaster.

Some at Twickenham are said to be restive over the possibility of a foreign takeover despite the fact that the Kiwi Warren Gatland has transformed the international standing of Wales so profoundly. The view of this faction is that with the biggest playing population in the world and superior commercial possibilities, it would be some kind of betrayal to say, "Well, maybe we've got a few things wrong. Perhaps we need a little help."

It is into this prejudice – or philosophical standpoint, if you like – that an England victory would play most powerfully tomorrow. Others are likely to argue still that with such a young England, a deeper overhaul, and rather more subtle grooming, may be needed if the disasters of New Zealand a few months ago are to be truly expunged.

Back in 1991 England were making their first strides towards professional organisation but it was a time which saw the first real understanding of how to make a serious challenge to the southern hemisphere on purely English terms. At least some of the lessons were considered worth absorbing by Sir Clive Woodward as he took his iron-clad team to victory in the World Cup of 2003.

Now the man who wants to pick up that old challenge can only hope for some of the furies that took hold of that earlier England at the Parc des Princes, when Skinner made his tackle and a high ball was launched at the brilliant Serge Blanco for the purpose of tossing him around as though he had been caught by hounds.

The truth must be that short of such effort – and effect – the dream ticket will be that much harder to resist in the Paris dusk.

'Plastic' charge against Tiffany is a patriot act

Try as one might, it is quite hard to muster outrage that Tiffany Porter, who has a British mother and long-held passport, is leading the indoor athletics team in Istanbul. This is despite the shocking revelation that her contribution to the singing of the National Anthem may fall below gold medal standard. The problem is partly because, as she admitted under fierce questioning this week, she is not known for her singing ability. Another reason is that while she can reel off the first lines of God Save the Queen she would be less than confident of getting to the finish line word-perfect.

Adding to the somewhat surreal nature of her interrogation was the fact that she happened to be sitting on the team bench beside one of her leading rivals for the captaincy, Mo Farah, who for the record was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and the team manager Charles van Commenee, who is Dutch.

The charge of course is that Tiffany, who does happen to be an outstanding hurdling prospect, is a 'Plastic Brit' who speaks with an American twang.

This should not, however, dissipate too much of the pleasure if she wins some kind of medal for the land of her mother's birth – and certainly no more than the centuries of Kevin Pietersen of Natal and Jonathan Trott of Cape Town.

Beware of Plastic Brits, we are told, but by whom? Plastic Patriots, the temptation is to say.

Messi aims for the pinnacle with true grace

While trawling through an unstoppable flood of praise for the latest fantasy football of Lionel Messi, which included the assertion of Wayne Rooney that he is "a joke, for me the best ever", maybe one of the most rounded catches was the comment of Franz Beckenbauer.

The Emperor praised both the player and the man, saying: "Messi is a genius. On the one hand, he is very skilful and intelligent with a left foot like Maradona. On the other he has some of the things of Bobby Charlton, in that he is a real gentleman."

There is not a lot more to say about the impact of football's extraordinary Little Big Man, except maybe that the final chore assigned to him, which is to banish such as Maradona and Pele, Cruyff and Di Stefano from the peak of the world's game, is probably beyond even his reach. But then who ever tackled a chore this big with such unbreakable style – and grace?