Stuart Lancaster accepts that pressure to deliver results is mounting as England continue to flounder in their build-up to next year’s World Cup on home soil.
South Africa prevailed 31-28 in Saturday’s QBE International at Twickenham to extend the hosts’ losing sequence to five Tests, albeit each of them coming against New Zealand or the Springboks.
Lancaster stated in the build-up to the 24-21 loss to the All Blacks that the autumn opener would offer a “barometer of our progress”. Two defeats later and England appear to be going backwards.
“Clearly the pressure is on because we haven’t achieved our objective, but internally there’s a very strong group working hard together to improve. There’s no sense of the pressure affecting people,” head coach Lancaster said.
“Every defeat hurts, but obviously you do want to make sure you build and put a positive performance in next week. People want and expect that – as do we. I don’t think any team stops developing or learning, but the clock ultimately stops at the World Cup.
“If you don’t win in the short term, while also trying to develop the side in the long term, then ultimately pressure can be caused by not winning consistently.”
One of the most pressing concerns facing Lancaster is his underperforming fly-half Owen Farrell, once an automatic selection but now surely unlikely to retain his place against Samoa or Australia.
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Farrell, who has barely played for Saracens this season due to injury, does not appear to be fit and is in such poor form that George Ford is almost certain to be given an overdue start.
Lancaster, who also has problems at scrum-half with Danny Care off-colour, has defended his 23-year-old British and Irish Lion.
“There is nothing in training to show that Owen is down on fitness. He trained fantastically well on Tuesday. So there’s no fitness issue,” Lancaster said.
“Owen will be frustrated at one or two things – the ball out on the full from kick-off, things like that, things that can come back and haunt you. Obviously in a key position like 10, that’s important.
“But he has been outstanding for England in the past and he certainly wasn’t at fault for us losing to South Africa. You lose because of the collective, not because of one person.
“We have got a lot of faith in Owen as a player and as a person. We’ll be sticking by him really in terms of his development within the squad without a doubt.”
Ford insists he is ready for his first Test start after four appearances as a replacement, including Saturday’s 16-minute cameo against South Africa.
“I think I’m ready. Obviously I really want a chance. I always want to get on the pitch,” Ford said. The squad will review the game today and Ford is braced for some plain talking.
“Some things happened that happened last week. For them to happen two weeks on the bounce, [the review] could get a little bit nasty. We’re an honest team and we’ll stick our hands up,” Ford said. “We need to win the next two games. We are five [defeats] on the bounce now and we are not a team that likes losing.”
Meanwhile, South Africa head coach Heyneke Meyer offered England consolation by insisting the 2015 World Cup hosts will learn from their winless sequence.
England played South Africa four times in 2012, claiming one draw, before this weekend’s loss, and the next time the sides clash could be in the knockout stages of the World Cup.
“They’re a quality side and they will be better for this,” Meyer said. “The last three games we’ve played them, one was a draw, one was a win by one point and this [win] by three points.
“It’s just a matter of time. They need some luck and when the luck comes you get confidence. You need luck, sometimes you make your own luck and then you get momentum.”
The Springboks beat world champions New Zealand in October and bounced back from the loss to Ireland in Dublin with the defeat of England.
It was not the most attractive contest, but Meyer took the positives from winning ugly. “Sometimes you have to have a game like this where you do the basics right, grind out a win,” he added.
“That’s Test match rugby and, for me, that’s World Cup-winning rugby. There’s going to be three knockout games and sometimes you have to play like this.
“I’m really happy that we almost took a step back but in a sense three steps forward because we adapted to the conditions and to our game plan.”
Key to the victory was fly-half Pat Lambie, whose nerveless late drop-goal meant England needed more than a converted try to prevail.
Lambie has now led the Springboks to a win at Twickenham three times, while in 12 November Tests in the northern hemisphere he has won ten and lost two – to Scotland in 2010 and Ireland earlier this month.
“Pat’s always played well for us end of year, specifically in this weather,” Meyer said. “I think we’ve won every single game he’s played here. He’s a very level-headed guy and took the right options, especially the drop-goal.”
Meyer continued: “He’s got a calm influence on the team, although he’s only 24. It was the right type of game for him – wet, difficult conditions, under pressure, and he showed he’s a match-winner.”
Tighthead prop Jannie du Plessis is likely to miss Saturday’s Test with Italy due to hamstring and knee problems and could also miss the Wales Test.
But the Springboks head to Padova in buoyant mood, with the quality of South Africa’s defensive display delighting captain Jean de Villiers.
“It was a very good defensive effort,” the centre said. “Defence is also about understanding attack. If you understand attack you’re able to defend well. The decision-making on defence was really good from one to 15.
“Mentally we showed up this week and that’s what was lacking last week [against Ireland]. It did come down to what we did with the ball when we had it. It’s quality possession, rather than percentage of possession that counts.
“Credit must go to our forwards in the work they put in and being clinical in that department. Sometimes you have to fight it out in difficult, wet conditions. Our execution was certainly much, much better.”
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