Lewis Moody on Six Nations 2015: Even an England title triumph will still leave awkward World Cup questions unanswered

COLUMN: Stuart Lancaster now has more questions about personnel than before the tournament, says the former World Cup winner

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England will surely win against France, but will it be enough? The French simply haven’t been at the races – but then again, for large periods of matches, neither have England.

If Ireland go out and amass a huge score against Scotland that will surely be enough for them to take the tournament – but when so far have they looked like doing that? Scotland will not make it easy for them to score freely.

Much has been said about the disappearance of the old Gallic flair, but Gallic flair was more prone to error – a sudden intercept, a misplaced chip. The French are a different side now.

Thierry Dusautoir organises their defensive structure very well. They are not as chaotic in defence as they once were. Even if their new style doesn’t sit so well on their ever-widening shoulders, it makes it extremely difficult for England to pile on the points, should they need to.

Thus far, piling on the points has been a job England have made difficult for themselves, whoever the opposition. If they come out needing tries, they will come out needing to perform for the full 80 minutes, something thus far that has been very much beyond them.

Either way, they go into the final round of matches knowing that ultimate victory is out of their hands. Whether they do or don’t beat France by enough points to claim the title won’t fundamentally alter the conclusions Stuart Lancaster wanted to be able to come to by the end of this, the final tournament before a World Cup at home.

The only conclusion he can reach is that there aren’t enough conclusions. So many players yet to come back, so many combinations. The only time England have ever gone into a World Cup as firm favourites, back in 2003, the team, the squad even, was all but set in stone long before this stage.

He will have realised how much we miss certain individuals. Geoff Parling is back for this final match, and that’s no surprise. Joe Launchbury, Manu Tuilagi... without them England are simply not at their best. And England have survived without an Owen Farrell or a Danny Care, but if they were fit that is the sort of strength in depth he would want and need.

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Danny Care and Ben Youngs

 

England have had an exciting trajectory. At the opening match in Cardiff, Stuart will have been thinking: “Christ, we could get hammered.” But the sense of expectation from that fine victory and performance was shown to be false. The Ireland loss and the poor showing against Scotland were probably closer to England’s reality.

If we win the tournament, then fantastic, but it shouldn’t paper over the cracks or hide the fact that England have taken some backward steps over the last few weeks.

 

Stuart’s conundrum is that he has more questions about personnel than he had before. Now he will go into the World Cup not confident who the starting XV are, not confident his team can perform for the full 80 minutes, not confident that all the work he has done over four years has paid off. He’ll be wondering who he will benefit from playing in England’s two remaining warm-up matches before the tournament starts, and not knowing who he can’t afford to risk. Rugby World Cup history is littered with players who received heartbreaking injuries in those warm-up matches.

As things stand, and come tomorrow morning, from when there is nothing impeding the view of the World Cup on the horizon, England’s place in the hierarchy is reasonably clear.

They know they should have the beating of Australia. They’ve beaten Wales, but would still be considered underdogs against both them and Ireland. New Zealand and South Africa are far out in front.

When Stuart first came in, four years ago, there was no real pressure on him. There was so much negativity after 2011, he was a breath of fresh air. The team played a free brand of rugby. But as they have discovered, when the pressure comes, playing with that freedom becomes so much harder.

They are not playing the style of rugby they were a couple of seasons ago. They’re getting much more nervous in games. It would be good to see them getting back out there and playing more freely, but that’s not an easy thing to achieve.

Will he be able, over the next six months, to try to go back to basics, to say, “Right, what were we good at? Why did we start out so well? Do we need to relax the structure a bit, to just let guys play a bit more?”

Can he start to get a bit more ball to Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph? To speed up the ball, as they did two seasons ago, with the tap-and-goes instead of just kicking into the corner?

That said, get a convincing win against France, seal the Championship, and England will have delivered more than perhaps they thought they might. Lose, and they really will find themselves in a tough position.

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