IT’S difficult driving with one eye on the road and the other fixed determinedly on the future but if anyone can pull off this trick you suspect Stuart Lancaster is the man.
The England coach knows that his side should see off Italy without too much trouble at Twickenham this afternoon but he has his sights set on a bigger prize.
The 2015 World Cup is coming up on the rails like a locomotive and it, rather than this afternoon’s encounter, will determine Lancaster’s place in the pantheon.
Even with the early return of their skipper Sergio Parisse, after successfully appealing a ban for abusing a referee, Italy are rated 25-point outsiders to register their first-ever win over England. The Azzurri had their best opportunity to claim that scalp last year in a snow-swept Olympic Stadium until a Charlie Hodgson chargedown sparked an English fightback.
If imitation is flattery then Lancaster is laying it on thick by aping New Zealand. Following the disappointment of the 1997 Rugby World Cup, All Blacks coach Graham Henry almost immediately blooded a good few youngsters such as Jerome Kaino and Cory Jane so they would have 30-plus caps by the time the 2011 World Cup came along. Two years further down the line Lancaster is acutely aware that he needs to give the likes of Mako Vunipola, Brad Barritt, Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury and Alex Goode as much exposure to high intensity international rugby as possible to ensure that no one freezes on the biggest stage of all.
England have the makings of a world-beating squad but Lancaster still has a few itches to scratch. The balance in the midfield and the back row still doesn’t look quite right. They probably need the creative influence of Billy Twelvetrees, above, because Brad Barritt is a much better defender than he is an attacker. The issue of scrum-half is also a live one – does Lancaster pick the inconsistent Ben Youngs or the consistently excitable Danny Care – and England are playing without a specialist seven.
So far Lancaster has got away with it, partly because Wales are the only team in the championship to field a “fetcher” and England must travel to Cardiff next weekend.
The England skipper Chris Robshaw was given a fearful hurry-up by the brilliant young Wallaby Michael Hooper in the autumn and you fancy the Lions will get the same treatment from the same man on the hard, fast grounds of Australia.
The only out-and-out fetcher in the England squad is Matt Kvesic, the openside who will join Gloucester from Worcester in the summer. Many pundits south of the Border are talking up Will Fraser but it may be asking too much of the Saracens and Saxons flanker to expect him to break into the England back row in the next two years.
If he does, he will pass Courtney Lawes going the opposite way because the experiment of shifting the big man from the second to the third row of the scrum against France was Lancaster’s biggest howler to date.
Otherwise, the England boss has played a strong hand pretty well with Mako Vunipola, the giant prop of Tongan heritage, earning a first start this afternoon, although Tom Croft’s return to fitness means that there is no place for Vunipola’s brother Billy on the bench.
Lancaster has shown faith in Chris Ashton but that support might not extend to another defensive flap such as the winger displayed when allowing Wesley Fofana to run riot at Twickenham – not that Italy field anyone with anything like the Frenchman’s attacking verve.