“There were over 700 caps in their team and you only have to look at how many British Lions they have. It’s a pretty good side all round at the moment.”
We talked about Stuart Lancaster’s cap quota in 2012 (“rough projection” of 663 come RWC Final time) after his first Six Nations when he was in the role in a caretaker capacity and made reference to it recently when discussing Joe Schmidt’s selections.
The traditional criticism of Ireland’s selection policy is that it’s harder to get out of the Irish team than in it. The Mole barely remembers before Geoff Cooke but my vague recollection, reinforced under Andy Robinson, has it that inconsistency and short termism are the traditional bugbears of English selection.
The question was raised about England’s progression under Lancaster so we had a look at his selections, his officer class and how close to attaining his target number he’ll get by RWC15 which England host.
A number of observations can be made about this English team under Lancaster. It is a very young squad as Lancaster made a concerted effort to move away from the 2003 generation when he took over. As we remarked in 2012 Johnson included four 2003 alums in his QF selection against France but Lancaster cleaned house when he took over for the Six Nations. By the Mole’s reckoning, only two contenders for England’s first XV are over 30 – Delon Armitage and Geoff Parling – and both turned 30 in recent months. Armitage has never been selected by Lancaster while Parling plays second row where being over thirty is probably an advantage.
The Cumbrian born Lancaster gives the impression of a conscientious, driven, deliberate career coach – what you see is what you get. Review of Lancaster’s selections reveal a picture of a players’ coach who is prepared to give people an opportunity and who has a firm idea of the sort of team he’d like.
Including his stint as caretaker (Six Nations 2012), Lancaster has been in charge of England for 24 games before this weekend’s match against Ireland. In that time he has used 49 players with Monye, Eastmond and Wade the exceptions as they are the only players to have started a sole game for Lancaster. Wade would likely have been picked for the second test against Argentina had he not been called to Australia with the Lions. Everyone else has had at least two starts in which to take their opportunity.
The second characteristic of Lancaster’s selections is when and where he makes his changes. 49 players seems quite a lot but Lancaster prefers to keep units intact for the most part throughout a series or a tournament. What this means is though 14 players have started in the front five for England, only one change of personnel was made in each of the 2012 Six Nations and 2012 tour to South Africa. Two changes were made during the 2012 November series as Alex Corbisiero was recalled at loosehead for Joe Marler when Joe Launchbury was chosen to debut. In the 2013 Six Nations Dylan Hartley began only the French game while Mako Vunipola was given his start against Italy. There were three new Lancaster starters in Argentina but the same front five started both tests. The 2013 November series was a riot of experimentation for Lancaster as three changes were made over the course of the three games while the same front five started both games so far in the 2013 Six Nations.
Lancaster’s selections in the back row have followed the same course with no player discarded after only one game. He has allowed units to develop an awareness of the skill sets within the group.
By contrast, half back has been a position of change through Lancaster’s time with three scrum halves chosen and block down specialist Charlie Hodgson discarded after winning two games. For a coach fond of allowing units to settle, the fact that Leicester duo Ben Youngs and Toby Flood have only started two games together came as a surprise (lost v S Africa 27-36 & 15-16). Flood is the only veteran from the final of RWC 2007 chosen by Lancaster but has seemed number two to Owen Farrell rather than the senior incumbent.
Centre has been a problem position for England with a first choice combination of Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt not put under consistent pressure from a range of pretenders including Billy Twelvetrees, Jonathon Joseph, Joel Tomkins, Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond. Owen Farrell made his first two starts for England at centre while Slammin’ Sammy Burgess conversion will be watched with interest by many.
Lancaster’s conservative instincts are evident in the back three where Chris Ashton has frequently been joined by two of three full backs Foden, Goode and Mike “MR ANGRY” Brown. None of his pace men have been able to nail down a place with Jonny May the latest to be offered a chance.
While England have a large number of good players they have few with the “X-Factor”. Corbisiero and Geoff Parling were the only two Englishmen to start the Lions’ final test in Australia. Corbisiero was the decisive reason for the Lions’ win but didn’t start the tour while Parling was in because of O’Connell’s broken arm and had acquitted himself well throughout. This has allowed Lancaster to create competition within the squad for places but hasn’t created a nucleus of world class players. Toby Flood, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden for one reason or another haven’t filled the boots of Rob Andrew, Rory Underwood and Simon Halliday.
Lancaster has provided a select group of players with ample opportunity to taste test rugby alongside a supporting cast of players capable of providing competition or even taking over should they hit top form.
Dan Cole, Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw are the core of England’s pack. Joe Marler, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Geoff Parling, Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan provide competition to each other with the rest on the periphery.
In the backs Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi are the only names that look set in stone. At least two of Brown, Foden, Ashton and Goode will likely appear in the back three but there remains room for an out-and-out pace man capable of finishing half chances and breaking the line given the slightest of gaps.
Attaining the Target
I reckon there are 25 internationals remaining for England before the World Cup Final in Twickenham. The final will be the 26th game which means that 390 test starts are on offer to Lancaster’s squad. In order to reach his target number of 663, Lancaster will need to be consistent with selection. As his team acquires experience and confidence it is possible that more players will attain the “world class” standard aimed at by Lancaster. A caveat here is that I count only starts as caps for the purposes of this exercise. Including appearances off the bench will bring Lancaster’s team far closer to his target of 663.
Two areas of Lancaster’s squad catch the eye and both have come to the fore in the build up to the Ireland game: front five and out-half. The issue with the front five is surprising and commented on by Dean Ryan last October: the second row lacks a big lump. While Lawes, Launchbury and Parling offer athleticism and work rate it’s all a bit celtic. Where’s the beef?! Launchbury looks like he’ll grow into it but it leaves England short of a traditional strength. To add to that is the lack of serious competition to Dan Cole. While Marler, Corbisiero and Vunipola all bring something different to the party at loosehead, David Wilson is Cole’s main challenger and Lancaster has preferred to date to start him solely against Argentina.
Out-half is the area where Lancaster could do something daring that may go against his instincts. George Ford is one of the Mole’s favourites and if I were picking the team he’d be in with Faz at twelve and Manu at thirteen. Admittedly I watch far less of Bath than Lancaster but Ford is an astute, creative footballer who would give England something different.
My initial reaction to Ford not being included in recent squads is that it seemed a risk too far for Lancaster who wanted to pick a big physical team of athletes who could shut down opposition space and win collisions. Upon reflection, and having examined Lancaster’s selection policy to date, I have reconsidered and believe that the English coach was prepared to wait until England had a home game in the Six Nations to select the 20 year old in a match squad. If the latter is the case, and I believe it is, then George Ford will start at least one test at out half for England in NZ beside Owen Farrell who will continue to place kick and offer England more distribution alternatives in midfield to complement the direct threat offered by Manu Tuilagi.
Lancaster will leave the English national team in a much healthier state than when he took over. They will at that stage have an experienced team and competitive squad. With their home draw they could be champions but Lancaster will need to dare and sacrifice solidity for something more cavalier.