Sport Rugby

Friday 23 August 2019

Pressure points bear the burden

Shortage of halfback cover is the one big concern for England and Stuart Lancaster, says Brendan Fanning

England head coach Stuart Lancaster
England head coach Stuart Lancaster
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

England and their Operation Transformation. It started two years ago under Stuart Lancaster, a journey towards making modest men of elite athletes instead of arrogant men of modest athletes. Off the field the coach has preached the need for humility; on it he wants his players to be unforgiving.

To achieve that they need to be in peak physical condition, bulked up to deliver an industrial load at the World Cup on their own patch next year. Lancaster has already outlined his plans, supported by video, to the board at Twickenham. As a measure of his vision, and perhaps with a view to the lessons learned from the hangover after their World Cup success in 2003, those plans extend up to the Six Nations in 2016.

Twickenham on Saturday is the first drop-off point, where Ireland are cued to receive an unbearable weight. That was supposed to be Paris two weeks ago, but a combination of defensive doziness and some bad luck saw them let slip a game they had nailed down.

Edinburgh became the next point on the map. In crap conditions and on a bog of a pitch last Sunday, England looked like they were warm-weather training – running through stuff semi-opposed, fine-tuning as they went. Nobody's cortisol levels were spiked by Owen Farrell missing three gettable kicks. Scotland knew from early on that all their frailties – built up steadily by their union waking up to professionalism about 10 years after ours – would be exposed again. And England knew they were in the groove.

"We've come a long way since Stuart took over, and still have a long way to go," says Joe Marler, still only 23 but with 17 Tests. "The key is that we are more comfortable with the way we are playing and the way we want to develop."

It's not edge-of-the-seat stuff but if you admire things well done then it's very watchable. Like most teams intent on winning things they start with defence. There is nothing novel in the way they deprive teams of space, rather it's mostly about attitude. You could see this in the way Andy Farrell ran sessions in Carton House before the Lions left for Australia last summer. Add a small percentage to your effort, intensity and aggression and it may well put you in a dominant position.

They had lots of those against Scotland. England engineered them mostly by abandoning immediately rucks that couldn't be won and getting into the defensive line for the next phase. You lost count of the number of times they had 12, 13 or 14 men on their feet while the Scots had perhaps four on the ground at the tackle. That allowed England generate good line speed, and when the numbers were clearly in their favour it gave them the green light to double-team and make dominant tackles.

One or two thankless phases of that stuff and the home team were kicking the ball away, to relieve the pain, from a position of weakness. It was like taking a glass of water for a headache. Moreover, they are good at identifying defensive rucks that can be flooded quickly with bodies and turned over. England's work ethic is strong. Marler would be a long way from the prototype corporate man, but he has taken instruction and bought into the system.

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"You try to pick up as much positive advice as you can – but I haven't always had that attitude," he concedes. "A few years ago, if someone gave me advice I'd put two fingers up and go and dye my hair. Now it's about listening and learning, from characters like 'Wig' (Graham Rowntree, England's forwards coach), John Kingston (Harlequins forwards coach) and Jason (Leonard). The message has always been that nothing happens right away, you have to keep working hard and plugging away. I realised that, OK, I have my fun, had a bit of a laugh. But I also believe that what you do with your hair or wear on your body, as long as you are playing well, it's not important."

Last Sunday was the second anniversary of Lancaster's start against Scotland, where he introduced three new caps and made a whopping 10 changes to the side that had played the same opponents in the 2011 World Cup. With what he has on the field now, and the raft of injured players from Ben Foden through to Alex Corbisiero who are in the picture if not in the team, the coach has plenty of wriggle room ahead of RWC 2015.

He reckons Ireland will be going to that gig with an older crew than his, and that some of Joe Schmidt's current crop might be too old for the show. It follows then that he rates them higher than last season when England won in Lansdowne Road.

"Ireland are a more complete side now," he says. "I look at the technical detail that clearly they are getting as a forward pack. You don't score from driving mauls like the Irish have without being organised. You can see that Munster element coming through, and John Plumtree is clearly a good (forwards) coach.

"They spend a lot of time together, and when you've got a small number of clubs and a lot of lads who have played together a long time, it's about tweaks rather than wholesale change. Sometimes having less players means less chop and change – you've got what you've got, and you tend to stick with it. Whereas (in England) when you've got 12 clubs and lots of different philosophies, sometimes we've not had the consistency in selection."

The point in that process where he seems to have gone astray is at half-back. In the replay of Gael Fickou's winning try for France in Paris a fortnight ago, it's hard to explain why scrumhalf Lee Dickson, a replacement, wasn't doing his best Usain Bolt impression to cover across and dig out a couple of donkeys who had found themselves exposed in open country. There is not much about the Northampton player which suggests he is Test quality, and he wouldn't rate against Ireland's top three.

At 10 meantime, since the demotion of Toby Flood, there is a gap where the bench cover is supposed to be. For the first two rounds of this campaign that job has gone to Alex Goode, who plays fullback for his club, except that he hasn't been used there. Save for the tail end of the Test against the All Blacks in November, every minute of the last five games has gone to Owen Farrell.

"The decision (to ignore rising star George Ford) was based on the number of changes and the inexperience we had in the backline," Lancaster says. "We had Billy Twelvetrees eight caps, Jonny May one cap, and Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell uncapped. That doesn't mean to say we are going to remain that way. However, any changes will come in a phased fashion. It wouldn't be right to drop Owen after his performance against Scotland, but I accept that there needs to be an evolution so that other people get an opportunity."

This doesn't explain the lack of specialist cover on the bench, and it reminds us of New Zealand going into meltdown when Dan Carter got crocked in 2011 and they realised they hadn't prepared an understudy. Seemingly, Lancaster reckons Ford's time is coming, it's just it hasn't yet arrived. Until it does, England – steaming along happily with a flotilla of well-wishers in their wake – are in danger of running aground. Which would not be the transformation Stuart Lancaster has in mind.

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