The English team that started against Wales had 483 caps after the game split between 395 starts and 88 appearances from the bench, 180 caps short of Lancaster’s target of 663. That total of 663 caps requires an average of just over 44 caps per man. Pop quiz – how many players that started have more caps than that? Bonus round – name them.

The answers are two, Ben Youngs (38 + 15) and Dan Cole (51 + 6). The reason for this stat-heavy opening paragraph? Stuart Lancaster’s caps quota which we first talked about in 2012 and revisited in 2014 before they played Ireland. It was a useful prism through which to view Lancaster’s selections and provided an insight into the Cumbrian’s mindset – “a conscientious, driven, deliberate career coach”. So, how did he get where he did?

The first place to start is when he took over the role, after RWC11. He decided to cut ties with much of what went before and two of the players that I think suffered unduly as a consequence of that were Toby Flood and Nick Easter, who both played in the 2007 final. It is understandable that Lancaster wanted to put his own stamp on things and create an environment definitively different from England’s decade long post-2003 hangover but if you want to have a team that has 663 caps you have to pick some guys with experience.

Easter, in particular, was scapegoated in the aftermath as “the worst person on earth” as we understatedly remarked in 2011. And I, in particular, thought that a terrible decision because I’m a fan of footballing forwards who look like they enjoy an occasional pint and might lack some wheels. So who did Lancaster call into the squad upon Vunipola’s injury? You got it, the 37 year old Nick Easter who has 52 caps.

Toby Flood barely even qualifies as a veteran given that he turned 30 in August of this year. Flood was actually selected by Lancaster to start a number of tests but was jettisoned after the 2013 loss to NZ. A place kicking out half capable of playing first centre, Flood earned 60 caps for England in a career that overlapped with Jonny Wilkinson.

The next place to look is the backline, 11 through 14 for the purposes of this article, only one of whom had more than 20 caps. That man was Brad Barritt, more of whom anon. The junior partner of the four was Slammin’ Sam Burgess, converted from the Northern Code at great cost and friend of Russell Crowe. Outside those two were Anthony Watson and Jonny May, two speedsters. This odd combination left England fairly bereft of footballing instinct and was out of kilter with Lancaster’s initial back three mixes of one speedster and two full backs.

Burgess played well and if you’ve got a really good player without much experience but with proven big match temperament then it’s OK to pick him but you have to be realistic about what he’s going to provide. Selecting two centres with very little creative nous inside two wingers with scorching pace but average footballing sense effectively isolates the outside men and highlights the inadequacies of the inside men.

The man missing in this equation was the force of nature that is Manu Tuilagi, injured and also unwanted after another disciplinary lapse. Tuilagi gives England so much go forward that he’s very difficult to replace but in my mind the man to fill his void was Burgess. The most difficult thing about 13 is defending and making the reads but I think Burgess could have managed that given his experience in top class League and his love of smashing people.

Expecting him to be a world class distributor in the manner of Brian O’Driscoll, JJV Davies or Conrad Smith is unrealistic which is why it makes sense to have the option of a ball-playing 12 inside, such as Owen Farrell or Toby Flood or even Kyle Eastmond. Playing Eastmond beside Ford makes the midfield very small but Farrell could fill either slot and so could Flood although not as well. It also makes sense in that instance to have one winger capable of playing full back who is a good defender outside the 13 channel, for example Alex Goode or Jack Nowell.

Lancaster’s selection seemed reactive and incoherent, ignoring many of the good things that he’d developed for England in the previous three years up for the sake of stopping Jamie Roberts rather than imposing his team on a battered Welsh outfit.

In contrast, his opponent (Gatty) showed his instinctive ability for getting his men together and picked a team with an almost uncanny composition. The Wales team selected for Twickenham finished the the match with 678 caps – which means they started with exactly 663, Lancaster’s magic number! Hallam Amos may be an international novice but he was outside Jamie Roberts (72+2) and across from George North (54+1). Scott Williams (16+18) has more caps than England’s centres combined even though he has played second fiddle to JJV Davies (48+3) for his career.

Gethin Jenkins (91+31) and AW Jones (85+12) were trusted to go to the well once again while the Old Firm of Lydiate (49+3), Warburton (52+7) and Faletau (49+1) all knew what had to be done. Gatland has faith in his troops and a clear idea of what he wants from them which breeds confidence, the 16th man.

Kenny Rogers’ classic “The Gambler” was a favourite of England’s beleaguered 2007 World Cup team that were annihilated in the group stages only to regroup and scrap their way to the final. The show ain’t over yet but Lancaster should remember the lyrics to the country & western classic

Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’

Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep.

‘Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep

PS Phatguerilla, here’s lookin’ at you!

12 thoughts on “Roundheads

  1. Huge fan of your work and generally agree with this article, but…. Toby Flood? My lasting impression of him has Brian Moore hitting critical mass in frustration:

      • I thought Flood was a decent player, but he never convinced me at international level. Kind of a backline Steve Borthwick. Of course, I suppose you have to factor in that he was exposed to MOC-ball before the rest of us knew what it was.

  2. What did you think of the call for the lineout mole? I didnt see the game, but the actual call they made, ie Robshaw at 2 + maul smacked of a lack of creative thinking to me. If you’re gonna go for it then, to continue the Kenny Rogers theme, surely you have to have a better card up your sleeve than that.

    Andy McGeady tweeted that kicks from there have a 45% success rate, and Eoghan Hickey continued the theme further in his article for the42 said the probabilities still added up for a kick at goal.

    I would be more inclined to question the how and not the why. I wouldnt necessarily blame a team for trying to win a game but a throw to 2 on a shortened lineout that close to the line? Seriously? That’s the best play they could come up with?

    Australia are gonna win the group imo. Cheiks has them firing nicely and the backrow battle of McPooper versus Lyds-Warbs-Faletau will be fascinating.

    • the decision to go for the lineout was cracked, I’d have definitely gone for the posts having got a bonus point against Fiji and with Uruguay as the last game so you know what points difference target is. As for the lineout itself…I’m ambivalent about what they did, my view is that they gave a sucker an even break and put Wales on the front foot as soon as they kicked for the corner.

      • Thankfully someone else understands the maths of it.

        It has always bothered me (while out playing scrapheap rugby) how few people know details like this before games. I don’t know if it differs at professional level but people always get annoyed when you mention things before a game like, “three points is all we really need today lads – a bonus point draw will see us through”.

    • I’ve been surprised at how little focus has been placed on the English hooker at the fateful moment -another of Lancaster’s substitutes, Kieran Brookes – in whom it appears his captain did not have the confidence he could throw, under pressure, to No 6.

      Based on his llimited experience in games under pressure, his captain was probably right not to trust him. But, compounding the error by taking it at No 2 himself was sacrifical stupidity. The throw had to be to 4 or 6, Launchbury was the ideal target as, even with Charteris in opposition, Wales were going to stay grounded.

      So, poor execution compounded what may have been the wrong decision. Personally, unless, Farrell was gagging to take the shot, I can understand the decision. Wales had not been. in the game. England must have felt they “deserved” to win it and here was the opportunity to fulfill that destiny. There’s little doubt that the English team (and Nation) really did believe this was their destiny.

      However, CO’K, I disagree with your conclusion and believe that England, like their cricketing colleagues, can beat the one country the majority of English players and sports fans hate, Australia.

      • Erratum: I did of course mean sub-hooker Rob Webber, not Kieran Brooks. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

  3. Lancaster put himself on the back foot with squad selection before a ball was kicked. The lack of a 7(armitage) a centre(tuilagi- to be fair injury would have ruled him out) his best throwing hooker(Hartley) probably hurt more than a lack of Toby flood. Hartley would only have missed first game.
    His desire to fill the squad with “good blokes” was admirable early doors when he was trying to change the public image but eventually you have to pick the best players available to you. Cheika successfully talked the oz Union into something of a u-turn on the foreign players thing. Surely Lancaster could have called a World Cup “exceptional circumstances” and brought the balance to his back row even the most casual rugby observer could see it was crying out for.

  4. Great piece as always, its not often that a coach can be objectively judged to be a failure by their own metrics of success! Regarding the lineout it really showed the difference between a team like England and NZ (if there was any doubt). In a similar clutch situation to win against South Africa, McCaw had an ace to play (ooh cards theme) which no one expected, whereas Robshaw not only went for the most obvious option but did it in the most one dimensional way possible.

  5. The specified number of required caps thing was a bit of a nonsense from Lancaster, even if it did work out for wales! There are loads of different ways a good team can come together and potentially how a World Cup could be won. You hear it said too that ‘the team with the best defence wins the World Cup.’ Well sometimes, but not necessarily. Thornley went over the ‘you need a great 10 at the top of their game’ argument, I think that started after Lynagh in 1991, but it’s clearly not an absolute pre-requisite any more(!), if it ever was. Jackman recently extended it out to you need a good coach, captain and half back pair. Jackman writes some great stuff, but that cracked me up. Apparently you need good players to win the World Cup!

    All this stuff is a bit like people looking for a repeating sequence in pi. You could convince yourself there’s a pattern, but it’s not really there. I’d argue the best team doesn’t even necessarily win the thing and the better team on the day doesn’t necessarily win. If that were the case wales would have reached a World Cup final 4 years ago, or failing that – France would’ve won it. Winning! ain’t easy.

    England are lurching from media crisis to crisis right now, microphones are not their friend, but they aren’t gone yet and as much as I’d have argued their selections so far have been counter-productive, the flak they are taking is over the top. I nearly find myself ready to cheer for robshaw. South Africa seem to have quickly moved past their japan crisis, so why not England? Yep, they messed up and yep, they have their work cut out to beat Australia at this point, but it’s far from a done deal. The set piece platform is largely there for a start. Obviously they need to sort out midfield and their bench strategy, but that’s do-able. Australia’s astounding eschewing of a bonus point v Fiji means that if wales were to pick up five on Thursday and should australia lose (without a losing bp) then the group is over a week early and England are through. I’d argue losing to wales is not that bad for England. They weren’t going to win 4-5 big games with the gameplan and selections they had gone with for wales. Losing the first one gives them a chance to sort their issues and come back different and smarter. If that’s good enough to beat one of the best – Australia – then they can win the World Cup. If it isn’t good enough ….well, at least they’ll know.

  6. Burgess played well stopped Roberts, Williams and the wingers at source. England were well on top until Ford came on for Burgess and Farrell went to first centre. It was a crazy decision that cost England the game, who besides from the stupid penalties had out muscled Wales for 60min.

    Burgess might be limited but is better that Barrett who has been awful so far and cant believe he has been picked again.

    Whatever happened after Burgess went off, Lans was right for picking him but 100% wrong to take him off, as Roberts got straight over the gain line the minute he was gone and Wales got the go forward ball they needed. Scored a great try and in the end deserved to win cause the stayed in touch and scored when they needed to. But England blew it, not for not taking the 3 points but for taking Burgess off for Ford.

    What do you think Mole? as I haven’t heard many people say this which I think is strange.

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