I bumped into Stuart Lancaster at the London launch of the Six Nations surrounded by many of the same English journalists who have given him a good kick in the crotch over the last few months. The Cumbrian looked ill at ease and just plain ill, like someone fighting for his job rather than a confident coach on top of his brief who was plotting England’s course to the final of the World Cup. Frankly I’ve seen people sleeping on park benches who looked in better spirits than the England boss.
Little wonder. What is that old saying about men making plans and then God chuckling to himself? It turns out that the Almighty is a Wales supporter. If England once viewed the Cardiff opener as a chance to put right some of the wrongs they suffered two years ago, at the hands of Kiwi referee Steve Walsh as much as the Welsh team, they now view Friday evening’s game in much the same way as Daisy views a visit to the abattoir.
With 12 front-line players missing (13 if David Wilson is ruled out by a trapped nerve in his neck) Lancaster’s team will be cobbled together with such haste that the seams will still be showing and it won’t take much for them to unravel altogether. In some places, lock and centre, he is probably down to the fourth or fifth-choice body and, as he pointed out last Wednesday, it’s not just the players that the team will miss, it’s all the experience and leadership that comes with them, or in this case, goes.
The BBC ran the headline “Stuart Lancaster not troubled by injuries”, which only goes to prove that someone within the organisation retains a healthy sense of sarcasm. If he is not troubled by them it is only because he is way beyond “troubled” and entering the meltdown stage.
Of course England have plenty of players to pick from but a World Cup year is no time to be handing out caps to newbies like champagne at a wedding. In last season’s tournament Joe Schmidt revealed that Ireland has utilised just 18 players in their starting line-up throughout the tournament, while England were able to select the same back line for every match. Little wonder they finished first and second. This season Lancaster dare not pick his side until they are safely inside the Millennium Stadium for Friday’s opener for fear of someone twisting an ankle stepping off the team bus.
England have been here before. In the first summer Test against New Zealand Lancaster had to pick a team without any contribution from the twin Aviva finalists, Saracens and Northampton. The makeshift side only lost to a Conrad Smith try two minutes from time. Something about adversity brings out the best in England, or so they hope.
At least Lancaster won’t have to toss a coin to determine which fly-half take the field. With the injured Owen Farrell out of the picture and Shane Geraghty making up the numbers, England are only left with just two genuine candidates and Danny DeVito has more chance of being selected to start ahead of George Ford than Danny Cipriani.
Ford is a wonderfully astute rugby player, the nearest the northern hemisphere has to a young Dan Carter; a tactical marionette who pulls all the right strategic strings. The problem is he is hopelessly inconsistent in front of goal, but without Farrell waiting in the wings, or playing inside centre, Ford is the best marksman available.
The best but not good enough. Ford missed two simple kicks against Glasgow in that European zinger last Sunday. Bath got away with it on the day, but he missed another two against his old club Leicester in the Aviva Premiership only recently and Bath lost a bonus point because of it.
If Friday’s big one against Wales comes down to a battle of the kickers the chances are that Leigh Halfpenny, along with the rest of the Principality, will enjoy the last laugh. Cipriani’s numbers from the tee are worse than Ford’s and it is not inconceivable that Henry Slade, who played on Friday for the Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds, will get a rapid promotion to the senior squad.
Finding 15 fit players to take the field in Cardiff is only the start of it. Lancaster’s hardest task is to give England an alternative narrative, a different story to replace the one that is being forced down their throat. As things stand the 12 front-line injuries are simply 12 subconscious excuses England will give themselves to lose in Cardiff. Somehow Lancaster has to turn the story round and give England reasons to believe that they can win. Lancaster will point to that narrow defeat in New Zealand and he will point out that Wales lack the same expertise as the All Blacks in closing out tight games.
Two years ago referee Steve Walsh, no lover of England, penalised the visitors relentlessly at the scrum where many thought they held the whip hand, and Friday’s French referee, Jerome Garces, is sure to be more even handed.
Finally, these big games are usually won, not by a moment of inspiration, but by the ruthless and relentless building of pressure until the opposition make a mistake which results in territory or points. That pressure comes mostly from the grunts up front and, while everyone likes the look of the Welsh backs, England should shade things up front where several second-string players have an opportunity to nail down that starting shirt not only for this tournament but right the way through to the World Cup.
Somehow Lancaster has to get all that across while sweeping the small matter of all those missing players, experience and leadership under the nearest carpet.
Asked if he had any sympathy for England’s injury woes, Ireland’s Joe Schmidt insisted that he could probably name 12 of his own players who were currently sidelined. Not that he didn’t feel for Lancaster in other ways. “Where I would sympathise with Stuart,” Schmidt continued, “is the massive pressure that goes with being England coach. That doesn’t change regardless of who you’ve got available.”
By the looks of him, Lancaster knows that truth better than most. ✱