Friday 22 September 2017

Lancaster's English revolution coming to fruition

Mixture of planning and good fortune have created best England team since 2003

Jonathan Joseph scoring one of his two tries against Italy
Jonathan Joseph scoring one of his two tries against Italy
England head coach Stuart Lancaster
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

England is beginning to expect again and Stuart Lancaster is happy to spread the acclaim among his star-studded backroom team.

When the former Leeds captain looks around the room during coaching meetings, he sees men who achieved far more than him during their playing careers and is comfortable enough in his own skin not to milk the acclaim that is currently coming his way.

Off the pitch, Lancaster has done a stellar job in redeeming the England rugby team's brand from the depths it plunged after the 2011 World Cup, but on it the results never quite stacked up to the burgeoning reputation.

The win over New Zealand in December 2012 was a high point, but they have struggled against the big three southern hemisphere sides ever since and, with their home World Cup now imminent, they came into this year's Six Nations needing to show signs that the whole plan is coming together.

It seems that the Chariot is beginning to find momentum, partly by design and partly by dint of circumstance at just the right time.

The pack have not been a problem for the coach, who has plenty of high quality options up front, but the backline cohesion has always been an issue.

While scrum-halves came and went, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi were the pillars of the plan but with both men absent this spring, the coaching team have stumbled upon a combination that has been manufactured in Bath but is beginning to look tailor-made for Test rugby.

George Ford may not be the complete package when it comes to goal-kicking, but his ball-skills are up there with the best and with Jonathan Joseph adding pace, power and X-factor behind the scrum, there is now a sense of the unknown.

Add in the power of Luther Burrell and Anthony Watson and you have a potent unit capable of splitting defences from anywhere on the pitch.

While Mike Brown is looking less and less likely to be available for their visit to Dublin and Jonny May is under pressure for his place, there are quality options in reserve like Alex Goode, Jack Nowell and Billy Twelvetrees, who is finding new life as an impact sub.

Elsewhere, cause célèbres Nick Easter and Danny Cipriani have been brought in from the cold and both scored tries against Italy.

After an autumn which showed little progress and drew plenty of criticism from the domestic media, the win in Cardiff has generated a wave of positivity around the World Cup hosts.

With the Graham Rowntree-led forwards as mean as ever, the backs have been threatening off first-phase play and when the game breaks down.

"I've seen a lot of hard work in training; I think Mike Catt and Andy Farrell have done a great job in giving them a raft of set-plays that they can use that hopefully will create that first-phase try that you don't usually see in international rugby. It was nice to see one come off (against Italy)," Lancaster said yesterday.

"I think sometimes the backs have got them set up but then for some reason the forwards don't give them the ball.

"There were two or three opportunities that we felt we didn't take that we should've done. On the back of that there was a maul right near their line just before half-time.

"So I think everyone recognises we left a couple of tries out there, but equally, where Ireland scored two tries in three minutes (against Italy), and South Africa scored two tries on breakaways against Italy, and we scored six. So, I didn't want to be too hard on everyone (during the review) today."

They are a team that demands respect and Joe Schmidt wasn't long in bringing them up in the aftermath of both of Ireland's wins this season.

Lancaster's England are one of just two of the top international teams the New Zealander has yet to beat and he has assembled his squad in Galway to come up with a plan to do just that.

"I felt their performance against Wales is probably better than anything we have put together in these last two games so we'll have to be better again," he said.

"They were 10-0 down early on and to claw yourself back in the Millennium Stadium against what was a very good Wales side. . . They got pulled back for a try as well as the two tries they got.

Pressure

"They got very close to another score, another two scores, really, so they put a lot of pressure on Wales, both with and without the ball. Wales are a very good side and for aside to do that they have to be doing something pretty well."

Schmidt has noted the backline changes and has been impressed with how the English have performed so far.

"I think Ford has played really, really well. He defended well in Wales. He's not the biggest man but he's courageous and very correct in his defensive technique.

"His kicking game is bang on and he's a very astute young player," the Ireland coach said before he had a chance to pick apart the performance against Italy.

"The footwork that Joseph has and Watson, they're very difficult to contain. I'd throw some of the guys who've been around a bit longer like Jonny May into that bracket as well. I thought his try against the All Blacks was exceptional in November."

England have not lost to Ireland since Johnny Sexton's inspired performance denied them the 2011 Grand Slam.

The fly-half is acutely aware of the run of four defeats in a row to the old enemy, who have finished second in the competition for three successive seasons under their current coach.

"They have won four out of five (matches) the last three years in a row," the Racing Metro star said.

"They probably don't have as much to show for it as they would like. We won the championship with four from five last year and they beat us so it is a strange one. We haven't beaten them in four games if you include the World Cup warm-ups, so it's a big one. They have obviously been very impressive."

In 2003, England arrived in Dublin to face an Irish team on the back of their longest winning run and blew them away.

It was the best performance of that World Cup winning team's era, but this Ireland team are better prepared for what's coming, while Lancaster would openly admit that his charges are still not at the level of the gnarled pack of winners Clive Woodward had assembled.

Still, this is probably the most impressive England team to arrive on these shores since the day Martin Johnson infamously refused to budge, and Ireland will be fully aware of that as Ireland prepare for battle in Galway.

Irish Independent

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