The pieces of the 2015 puzzle are slowly starting to fall into place for Stuart Lancaster. From a position of mild embarrassment, after his advances were initially turned down by Andy Farrell and then by Wayne Smith, Lancaster has finally reunited his Six Nations triumvirate, with the former Saracens head coach returning to the England setup as defence and backs coach.
Mike Catt, England’s temporary backs coach for the recent tour to South Africa, could yet also join as attack coach. A decision on that is expected by the end of the month, but it looks increasingly certain that even if Catt fails to land the role, Lancaster’s coaching team will be expanded to embrace a dedicated attack coach in a bid to solve England’s offensive malaise.
Perhaps most crucially, Lancaster himself has learned a great deal from the heartening 2-0 series defeat in the southern hemisphere. The invaluable experience of leading a tour party to perhaps the most hostile rugby environment in the world has doled out some crucial lessons for Lancaster.
If they weren’t already, the nuances of test match starting selection have not so much been impressed on him as walloped on him. Lancaster’s understanding of how to use his bench for maximum impact has also been placed under the spotlight.
In his short tenure so far, Lancaster has prided himself on his ability to listen, learn, adapt and improve. He has also proved he is not afraid of taking brave decisions when they are required. So, reading between the lines of the recent EPS Squad announcement, what has Lancaster learned from England’s summer tour?
1. Ben Foden is now considered a winger
With only two out-and-out wingers in the squad in Chris Ashton and Charlie Sharples, and following an adequate audition in South Africa, it seems increasingly as though Stuart Lancaster regards Ben Foden as England’s incumbent number 11. Fielding a different full-back in each of the three tests this summer, Lancaster has proved that he has comfortable strength in depth at 15, and with Foden moving to the wing, Brown and Goode will be fighting it out for a starting berth in the autumn internationals.
2. Owen Farrell is England’s fly half in waiting
Whether or not you’re a fan of Farrell’s solid-if-predictable displays at 10, the scene is set for the young Saracen to wrestle with Toby Flood for the stand-off starting spot once more when the southern hemisphere sides come calling in November. Charlie Hodgson’s retirement had left the door ajar for George Ford’s promotion to the EPS, but Lancaster has shut that opening, for now. Flood is the more exciting player, Farrell the more solid player. Selection at 10 this autumn will tell us a lot about the route that Lancaster and company are plotting towards 2015.
3. Tuilagi and Joseph won’t be partners for long
When selected as a centre partnership, with Tuilagi inside Joseph, pundits and fans alike were quick to praise this bold selection. Yet with Joseph disappearing as an attacking force for large portions of the second and third tests, and Tuilagi’s wrecking-ball power easier to shut down at inside centre, the reality never quite matched up to the potential. They still could form an effective partnership in the future, but with Allen, Turner-Hall and Barritt all selected, the fight for the number 12 shirt will see Tuilagi or Joseph shifted to the wing, or even the bench.
4. Tom Wood is set to return to the back row
Lancaster made no secret of quite how much he thought (and evidently still thinks) of Northampton flanker Tom Wood. The breakthrough player from England’s 2011 Six Nations campaign was overlooked for the World Cup and then sat out most of last season on the side-lines due to injury. But after a frustratingly long lay-off, the would-be Red Rose captain is set to return to the England fold. While Chris Robshaw has made the openside position his own with a series of battle-hardened all-action displays, the number 6 position could well be up for grabs despite Exeter’s Tom Johnson and Leicester’s Tom Croft both impressing in recent times. Both Johnson and Croft offer more speed over the ground, but Wood has the guile, ‘groundhog’ nous, and the bullfighter mentality that would have helped stop the South African steamroller this summer.
5. Adaptability is a valuable commodity
Take a look at the players selected in the England squad and you’ll notice one common feature that defines Lancaster’s charges. Other than a few specialist positions, every player is capable of covering at least two, if not three, other positions. While some won’t concur with the selection of Matt Stevens, Phil Dowson, perhaps even Owen Farrell and Alex Goode, there’s no denying their value in the hostile environment of test match rugby. Just look at the number of changes England were forced into in South Africa as evidence of that. Now more than ever, adaptability is a highly valuable commodity.
By Daniel Street, Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images