Stand-ins give England extra food for thought
If the descent from feast into famine is never less than traumatic, the return journey sometimes throws up difficulties of its own.
New Zealand 20 England 15
Stuart Lancaster's reward for an excellent England display in the opening Test against the All Blacks, who were shaken to their bootlaces at Eden Park before stirring themselves sufficiently to claim a late victory they scarcely merited, is the most sensitive selection of his two-and-a-half-year tour of duty. Should he get it wrong, there is no telling how wounding the consequences might be.
On the face of it, he should feel like a kid in a sweet shop. Some of those who manned the barricades with a passion at the most forbidding venue in the world – centre Kyle Eastmond and out-half Freddie Burns, hooker Rob Webber and blindside flanker James Haskell – were third-choice players at best, although their stock has just risen sharply.
Watching from the stand, jet-lagged in theory if not in reality, were a bunch of first-choice late arrivals now under consideration for the meeting in Dunedin on Saturday. Luther Burrell, Owen Farrell, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Billy Vunipola ... these are players of serious stature, "automatics" rather than mere "alternatives".
Throw in a couple of walking wounded who expect to be moving a whole lot quicker over the next couple of days – midfielder Billy Twelvetrees, scrum-half Danny Care – and the question is an obvious one: how in God's name does Lancaster strike a balance between loyalty to those who performed so well in the Six Nations before missing the Eden Park contest through no fault of their own, and proper recognition of those who filled in so effectively?
It is a conundrum, to be sure. Having gone from a skeleton staff to a cast of thousands in the space of a week, Lancaster finds himself in the most delicate of situations. Wholesale changes of the kind most anticipated prior to Saturday's match will require no justification if England square the series in the South Island and head for Hamilton with their eyes set on a very great prize indeed. But if the coach performs major surgery on his starting combination and then sees the team produce an inferior display, the critics will have plenty to say for themselves.
"This is a very tough selection position to be in, but it's good for us in lots of ways," the coach said, positive as ever. "The time you feel apprehensive in picking a team is when someone comes in from a long way outside the squad and you think, 'Actually, he's really not up to speed'. That's not the case here, but there are difficult calls to be made."
Twenty-four hours after this painfully late, exasperatingly narrow defeat – but for a couple of glaring errors at the last knockings and a fistful of dodgy calls from referee Nigel Owens, the tourists might easily have become the first side in two decades to drive the All Blacks out of their spiritual home.
It is worth reiterating that England fielded only five first-choice players at the weekend, with enforced changes in every area of the side, yet were holding the All Blacks at 15 apiece until Conrad Smith scored a try in the right corner with less than three minutes left. This was no mean achievement from a side expected to lose by 20 points or more.
However, by allowing an opportunity as enticing as it was unexpected to slip through their fingers, they have left themselves in the same place as so many other, markedly inferior Red Rose vintages: one Test down and 80 minutes from oblivion.
It is a moment for cool assessment, inspired selection and extremely sympathetic man-management. (© Independent News Service)