Ireland travel to Twickenham to face an England team rejoicing once more under the favourite’s tag. A win in ‘Le Crunch’ has given England a rejuvenated feel and boosted Lancaster’s job prospects.
Stuart Lancaster has become the players’ and pundits’ choice to make his interim role a permanent position. The RFU say that no decision will be made until after the Six Nations. Lancaster has proved the adage that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
There is a perception that Lancaster has pulled English rugby back from the brink and that has the Mole a little confused. Martin Johnson’s England beat Australia in Australia in 2010 and backed it up in the November series at Twickenham. They travelled to Lansdowne Road last season searching for a Grand Slam. They won their World Cup pool, beating both Argentina and Scotland, before losing to a French team that played their best 40 minutes in the tournament prior to an incredible display in the final. In other words: they were never that good and they were never that bad.
What did happen to the England vintage of 2011 was what is referred to in military circles as a clusterfuck. With the RWC broadcast live on terrestrial TV, rugby goes mainstream for five weeks. A voracious media, previously known as Fleet Street, needs to fill column inches on a daily basis and will create a story if none exists. Throw in a link to the Royal Family, a straightforward manager naive to the workings of the media with a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude to discipline, and internal strife in the governing organisation as the threat of legal action was thrown around, and you have all the ingredients needed to create disharmony.
England’s players accused Ireland’s players of similar behaviour in Queenstown but that ignores the Irish media’s a) awareness that rugby players drinking beer isn’t news and b) the cosy relationship with the national team.
Upon their return, the English players were asked to debrief confidentially. This was leaked to the press to the considerable embarrassment of many involved. The RFU launched a two month inquiry costing tens of thousands of pounds but the 26th person on a list of 26 has refused to give an interview and the issue has been closed. The RFU has a new chief executive, who has a background and knowledge of the media, and Mr Rugby, Bill Beaumont, has indicated his ambition to take over as chairman. This stability should serve English rugby well. Whoever gets the job, and it seems certain to be Lancaster, will arrive at a good time.
Has Lancaster done a good job? He has eradicated a lot of errors from the English game and adhered to a sane selection policy. Graham Rowntree, one of the few who came out in a positive light from the post-RWC fall-out has done a good job with a pack that does not yet intimidate. Manu Tuilagi has given England a focal point in midfield while Owen Farrell has made the step up from the underage ranks with impressive aplomb. Lancaster will hope that he stays around long enough to give Matt Kvesic and George Ford a chance to follow in Farrell’s footsteps.
The same media that wrung their hands with such glee at Johnson’s shambles is now prepared to back Lancaster over some foreigner who will “sell our birthright down the fjord to a nation of seven million skiers and hammer throwers who spend half their lives in darkness.”
On this side of the ditch, the Irish media has received a welcome addition in the form of Alan Quinlan who provides a consistently good column. Quinlan is less than a year gone from the playing ranks and his column is chock full of insight into the mindset of a contemporary player. It’s fascinating to see how big a part confidence and mindset plays in success: “Irish teams have gone for the jugular against England ever since that win in Twickenham in 2004 and they’ve built up a comfort level with playing against them.” This week he talks about Ireland snuffing out England’s flame of hope and highlights how far England have fallen.
Quinlan warns that this England team could grow into something more dangerous. The Mole agrees. This weekend is about more than second place in the Championship. An Ireland team shorn of two Lions’ captains that is capable of winning in Twickenham could foreshadow Ireland’s first win against the All Blacks. The Irish flame must now be fanned. Give it a lash, Dec!