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!