“There is a recurring theme about the way everyone can see their flaws, yet so bewilderingly little is done about them” – Daniel Taylor (speaking about Arsenal)
England and Stuart Lancaster head to Manchester to play a game against Uruguay in which most of them do not want to take part as the last act of a tournament they essentially no longer do. Only a few weeks ago those in the camp would have been imagining and planning the trip up north so differently; progression already guaranteed it would be a chance for a final confidence building and points racking hit-out before the sterner stuff of the knockout stages. What’s that they say about life happening while you are making plans? Life happened to England, alright. In the space of seven days four years of plans were booted all around the Twickenham pitch before being dumped in a skip in the car park by Wales and Australia.
Certain factors were working against Stuart Lancaster; the main one being that England have too little real quality in certain positions and those positions that have real quality are 30 caps shy of reaching fruition. But, even with that, if he is to keep his job, there are questions that he needs to provide answers to when he has a sit down with his employers in a few weeks’ time. We wouldn’t mind if he told us fans either.
1. Why did England not have a functioning centre partnership and a pool of players around this partnership that could step in effectively?
Manu Tuilagi was Emotional Stu’s go to man, in fact he appears to the be the only player the coach loves more than Brad Barritt. Losing the big man was a blow, but no team should be so susceptible to losing a single player. England have had fifty international matches to set this right and in the warm ups still they were tinkering.
2. Why so far behind in the breakdown?
Sam Warburton, David Pocock and Michael Hooper are such top level snafflers at the breakdown that should they fall on hard times they can make a living as pick-pockets and being bettered by players such as those, while frustrating, is not a total disgrace. Having a worse breakdown than Fiji, however, is a disgrace. Stu will say that there simply aren’t the players available who can do the job; if not Robshaw et al, then who? Calum Clark, Matt Kvesic?
The answer, however is not in such detail, it lies three years ago when the overall strategy was devised to move forward and the basic needs to compete at this level in this area do not seem to have been considered and recognised. We’re not talking about securing turnovers even, but more about the basic facility to produce quick ball and not having to commit too many players to get the job done. This was compounded by making Chris Robshaw captain, therefore rendering one of the main obstacles to a top quality breakdown operation undroppable. Had these conversations about breakdown strategy happened then the Armitage issue would never have existed as he would’ve been a regular from way back and would’ve stuck around to keep it that way, perhaps.
3. Why the Ford/Farrell flip-flop?
One of the few areas where Lancaster did appear to have some relative consistency was at 10; he clearly decided some time in 2014 that George Ford was the man to orchestrate England and set about playing him in every game. Until last week vs Wales when Farrell came back in, then until half time vs Australia when Ford came back in! Even if a team have a gameplan, and some would say the jury is out on this one, how can it be implemented with the key playmaker being selections hokey-cokied in such a way?
4. What does he actually value most in a player?
There is the sense that above anything else, character is what Lancaster values, it sits atop his checklist. While no-one is suggesting this is unimportant, a team full of solid characters only will only achieve a certain amount. Campese had character issues, Dylan Hartley has the same, but they would both make most teams they are in better. Barritt seems like he has character, but what else? Tackling. (As an aside on Barritt, why does he make so many more tackles than any other 12 in world rugby? If he’s doing all those tackles then what is he not doing, and who is not putting in the tackles that he is so keen to cover?)
5. Why is the scrum literally and figuratively going backwards?
Graham Rowntree has been in his job a long time, right from the Martin Johnson days, in fact. John Wells paid the price for the forward struggles in 2011, leaving Graham to take the forwards, er, forward. What is the plan to arrest the fact that at the moment they are struggling to do just that and why did it disintegrate in the past eight months?
So there are the queries we would make? Have we missed anything?