Six Nations: Are the current England side World Cup winners in the making?
Lancaster's team are being compared with the side that went on to win ultimate prize in 2003 but, writes Chris Hewett, that's premature
The great works of literature tell us that comparisons are either invidious or odious. They can also be ridiculous and dangerous at one and the same time. Owen Farrell is routinely described as the "new Jonny Wilkinson", even though it is difficult to imagine anyone less likely to embrace Buddhism in one of its more esoteric forms or spend the small hours wrestling with the philosophical conundrums associated with Schrödinger's cat. The very last thing the street-fighting midfielder from Wigan needs to do is start contemplating his own navel.
Then there is the notion that three straight wins over New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland – all of them full of promise, in their different ways – makes this England team the mirror image of the one preparing itself for ultimate glory at a similar stage of the World Cup cycle in 2001. This is to compare apples with pomegranates. Back then, Clive Woodward had been in charge of red-rose affairs for three-and-a-half years. Stuart Lancaster? He has been in post for 14-and-a-half months, the first five of which were on a trial basis.
England's team of the early Noughties was the best in Europe by a country kilometre. In the first four games of that year's Six Nations, they put 44 points on Wales in Cardiff and smashed the living bejaysus out of Italy, Scotland and France at Twickenham, with an aggregate scoreline of 171-45. Tries? You couldn't move for the things. Woodward's team, revelling in an all-court game brilliantly plotted by the attack coach Brian Ashton, zoomed along at the supersonic rate of seven a game.
As Woodward wrote in his book Winning!, published a few months after the World Cup triumph, it was a "magical time for the team"; a "golden period of 15-man, free-flowing rugby that had the crowd standing on their seats – a spontaneous tribute to performances that were both spectacular and clinical." For all the many virtues displayed by the current side in recent weeks – the precision and variety that took them past the reigning world champions from New Zealand; the mastery of gainline rugby brought to bear on the emasculated Scots; the fire and fury that subdued an Irish team who thought they had the monopoly on all the f-words that mattered – Lancaster is not thinking in terms of magical times or golden periods. Quite the opposite.
"People talked about this being a Grand Slam decider," he said in Dublin on Sunday, an hour or so after watching his young team take another significant step up the mountainside by prevailing in the darkest, most malevolent contest of his stewardship. "I can assure you that we haven't been thinking that way, and won't be thinking that way. We're a pretty grounded group and we know that if you get too far ahead of yourself, you take your eye off the ball. Next up is France at home: all things point to that and nothing else.
"We have some downtime now and it will be nice to recharge mentally before reviewing things and learning some lessons from what happened here. I think the need for consistency will be the main thing. We're playing well for periods, but there are lapses of concentration."
So far, so cautious. But Lancaster is too cute not to realise that the level of public excitement around the national team is greater now than at any point since the World Cup victory. Even when England reached the final of the 2007 tournament in France, thereby finding themselves within 80 minutes of a successful title defence, there was something muted about the response amongst the rank and file. The humiliating 36-0 defeat by the Springboks in the pool stage had made Tony Hancock-like curmudgeons of us all.
This level of frenzy is good for business: Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union throughout the previous decade, was enough of a hard-bitten businessman to calculate the benefits of victory in increased merchandising revenue, and if his successor, Ian Ritchie, is not quite a pea from the same pod, his commercial department is being extremely aggressive in marketing Lancaster's team as an honest, hard-working bunch of proud Englishmen with their collective heart in the right place.
But in terms of solid achievement, this vintage is very different from Woodward's 2001ers. A dozen years ago, the great back row of Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio was already a settled unit; Martin Johnson and Phil Vickery, the two cornerstones of the tight five, were firmly in place; and the half-back partnership of Wilkinson and Matt Dawson was close to being cemented. What was more, Will Greenwood was reaching full flower as a midfield maestro and Jason Robinson had been drafted into the match-day squad.
Lancaster has found his Vickery in Dan Cole, currently the leading tight-head prop in the world game, and if Ben Youngs is going to perform the crucial scrum-half role as he did against Ireland, as opposed to against Scotland, it is perfectly possible to see he and Farrell staying together right the way through to the home World Cup two-and-a-half years from now. But there is development to be done and decisions to be made in every other area. Team-building, well advanced under Woodward in 2001, is still at a relatively early stage with Lancaster in 2013.
It should also be borne in mind that the British and Irish Lions are touring Australia this year, just as they did in the summer of '01, and as Woodward remarked in that book of his: "I do not think it would be exaggerating to say it took England two years to recover fully from that tour. Unfortunately, it was not only unsuccessful in terms of results, but also everyone – meaning the players, coaches and all the medical team involved – came back exhausted. It was a disaster from the English point of view."
No fewer than 20 England players ended up being involved in that trek around Wallaby country and while it seems more than a little far-fetched to think that a similar number will be anointed this time around, we can be sure the red-rose contingent will be far greater than many predicted at the start of the season. Back in September, it was widely assumed that Chris Robshaw, the skipper, would have his work cut out to make the squad, let alone the Test side. Now, the workaholic Harlequins flanker is an even-money favourite for the captaincy.
Woodward is not the only England rugby high roller to note that national fortunes tend to dip following a Lions jaunt to the southern hemisphere, and Lancaster will be aware of the perils. In fact, he finds himself in a more difficult place than his illustrious predecessor. In 2002, Woodward was able to grant many of his senior players the luxury of a summer off. (Only a few front-liners made the long trip to Argentina for a two-match programme). If Lancaster pulls a similar stunt next year, he will be taking the liberty to end all liberties. England are scheduled to play a three-Test series in New Zealand, which is no place to travel light.
There is a long road to travel between here and there and as the coach said in Dublin, the next stage of the route is all that interests him. France are France, after all: anything could happen at Twickenham a week on Saturday, and probably will. Woodward loved to revel in his side's dominance of the European scene, naming his Six Nations teams early in Test week and letting the opposition worry themselves to sleep. Lancaster is not at that stage yet. The bookies may have England at the Woodwardesque odds of 1-5 for the title, but in sport, the only inevitability about a foregone conclusion is that someone ends up looking stupid.
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