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SIX NATIONS PREVIEW PART 2: ENGLAND

Stuart Lancaster file photo
Lancaster was never able to quite hit the heights

Near the top of the list for many successful coaches , especially here in the Northern Hemisphere, is the conundrum of how to handle expectation. The favourites tag hangs heavy on many a team, and it could be said, none more so than the England team coached by Stuart Lancaster.

The most momentous result in English Rugby’s history is still fairly fresh in the memory. Indeed, England’s World Cup win in 2003, preceded by a Six Nations Grand Slam, attracted many new fans to the sport in England, and heightened expectation for all future teams and coaches.  “Do it once and you can do it again, and again,” or so it’s believed.

In truth, that team coached by Sir Clive Woodward was ground breaking.  However, he probably totally messed it up for future coaches – a common theme of mine is many NH teams don’t take to winning well.  It seems to be tough for those other than the very best to know that when you are at the top you cant stand still, you have to keep evolving.

That level of expectation was a problem for all Sir Clive’s predecessors and was still being felt when, under the radar somewhat, and to the protestations of many, Stuart Lancaster took over as caretaker coach for the 2012 Six Nations.

Results didn’t meet expectations

The Six Nations is unique in the way the tournament is set up.  There isn’t a home and away format.  There is an uneven spread of matches – one year it’s 3 home games and two away, and the next vice versa.  Coaches know how the games fall each year – for instance Wales have the teams in Blue all either at home or away, with England and Ireland fulfilling the opposite fixtures, and its always been so.

With the exception of Wales in 2012, the games that Lancaster’s England lost were all games away from home. In the proceeding 3 years, Wales (Round 5), France (Round 2) and Ireland (Round 3) all beat England at times when expectation was high or just when momentum was gathering.

4 years as Runners Up for England in this tournament didn’t really meet expectations – still high some nine years and more after November 2003. In the three Autumn Series under Lancaster he had recorded a huge win vs New Zealand in 2012, and two wins vs Australia.  On Summer tours, the only win recorded was on the Lions’ decimated tour of Argentina in 2013.

A 2-0 loss to South Africa and a 3-0 loss to New Zealand were tales of “what could have been,” with the draw in South Africa in 2013 painting a picture of false hope.

World Cup Woe and a New Coach

 

France v England - 2016 RBS Six Nations - Stade de France
Sorely missed centre Manu Tuilagi

All of this doom and gloom, and no mention of the 2015 World Cup? England entered that competition in fairly good shape.  Of course, it was described as “their World Cup” – it was on home soil, and consequently, many thought it was theirs to win too.

In England’s group, were Wales and Australia.   England had beaten Wales in the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations.  They had beaten Australia in the 2013 and 2014 Autumn series.  But really the build-up to the tournament wasn’t great.

There was no real succession planning for the injury prone Manu Tuilagi – a barnstorming centre who had torn the All Blacks to shreds in 2012.  England had used many different centre combinations, without settling on a steady combination, with injuries and form of the alternatives being a grave concern.

Chris Robshaw’s position at 7 was a real cause for debate.  As is usual, the British Press had begun to obsess about the concept of a “genuine 7” a guy who was strong over the ball, a carrier and a link between forwards and backs.  Lancaster had firmly nailed his colours to the mast and said that his captain was his 7, was more than capable of playing the role and would remain at 7 come what may,

On top of that, Graham Rowntree had come out and said he was coach of a “World Class Pack” but was looking to improve their all round ability with ball in hand.  The bench-mark from which he was working was the All Black forwards who were capable of Harlem Globetrotter-esque skills on times in some eyes. That was a mistake.

Throw into the mix the selection of Sam Burgess, cross-code convert who had been bought by Bath, but who was considered a back row player by his club, but a midfield star by England and the signs weren’t great.

History Maker

The rest they say is history.  Roll forward to November 2015 and England appoint their first foreign coach in Eddie Jones.  And what a success he has made of the job so far. England’s last World Cup game was against Uruguay, and a resounding 60-3 victory, heralding the beginning of 14 games unbeaten, the next 13 of them under Eddie Jones.

2017 RBS 6 Nations Package
Few would have imagined this picture after England’s 2015 or the follow up

He’s quite obviously not everyone’s cup of tea for sure.  And most certainly he hasn’t yet turned England into world beaters.  But, even the most bitter non-England fan can only stand back and admire his achievements. A resounding Grand Slam – the first in 13 years at the first attempt.  A 3-0 series win against Australia, in Australia.

A 4 wins from 4 Autumn series win – with victories against Australia and South Africa,  and against Argentina, playing with 14 men for much of the game.  All on the back of a pretty awful 2015 season.

What has been striking about his time in charge is his desire not to allow the team to get ahead of themselves. After every milestone, there was no looking back, only forward.  No real celebrations, although I’m sure they enjoyed the occasion.  The Australian tour, the same. (I would say that was tarnished by some unsavoury sparring with Australian coach Michael Cheika – but stoked by some pretty unsavoury “plants” at press conferences by the Australian media too.)


Forwards

Nathan Catt (Bath Rugby), Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers), Charlie Ewels (Bath Rugby), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Jamie George (Saracens), Teimana Harrison (Northampton Saints), Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints), James Haskell (Wasps), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), George Kruis (Saracens), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints), Joe Marler (Harlequins), Matt Mullan (Wasps), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins), Tommy Taylor (Wasps), Mike Williams (Leicester Tigers), Tom Wood (Northampton Saints).

Backs

Mike Brown (Harlequins), Danny Care (Harlequins), Elliot Daly (Wasps), Owen Farrell (Saracens), George Ford (Bath Rugby), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Alex Lozowski (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby), Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs), Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby), Marland Yarde (Harlequins), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers).


Resurgent England

What’s also impressive is how the bones of the squad picked by Lancaster at the World Cup and the Six Nations Squad picked by Jones is similar too.  Of the 34 picked for this Six Nations, half were in the World Cup Squad. At least three more, in the Vunipola Brothers and Chris Robshaw would have been selected too, barring injury.

As I mentioned yesterday, Jones’ emphasis currently is on establishing a platform – effective and powerful scrum, lineout and defence are crucial to any successful team.  Back to the All Blacks once more, but at the heart of their success has been a decent platform in these areas.  Not wholly so, especially recently, as they have, in truth, become a counter-attacking team in many ways, feeding off turnovers and errors in the opposition, but it’s still a major part of their game.

As I also mentioned, this is a particularly English mentality.  This is not to say that it makes a team boring,  Far from it.  Being confident in your team’s ability to win your lineouts, especially at crucial phases of the game, is a beautiful thing.  Knowing that your team is confident at scrum time, and is even capable of disrupting the opposition scrum, often regularly, equally so.

But apparently, this is a fact not to the liking of Lions’ legend Jim Telfer, who has become the vox box of foolishness in recent times.  A quick google of his pronouncements, especially at this time of yearprovides painful reading, though. Just have a read of this little nugget.

“Eddie Jones doesn’t want to beat teams, he wants to demolish them, which I find a bit disappointing,” Telfer told BBC Sport. “To me he’s building his whole team on set piece and the building of the attack comes secondary.”

Of course, England aren’t purring in attack at the moment, but this gem contradicts everything Jones has said recently.  It raises some serious questions about Telfer’s mindset too.  I’ve never known a team approach an opposition by saying “let’s go easy on these folks, we don’t want to hurt their feelings. Give ’em a chance at scrum time, otherwise we might overwhelm them.  We can’t have that”

One might want to look at his coaching philosophy when on the ’97 Lions’ tour too.  Total opposite to the above.  He picked a pack to ask questions of “the manhood” of the South African forwards his winning team faced.

We all know the motivation for his rant – a proud Scotsman facing an English side on the up once more. Say no more though, read the article and bin it as utter nonsense.  He has previous and doesn’t do himself any justice here.

This is what Europe and the Rugby World are facing once more.  The prospect of an England team capable of challenging the very best. I think that really scares people and the old prejudices rise to the surface when that happens.

It’s obvious that the coach is in the heads of the players he has selected.  England will face challenges along the way – first up France, then Wales at home.  But they aren’t insurmountable, especially for a side that has won 3 on the bounce in Australia.  That’s the way Woodward built his sides – taking  them to places they had never been before, and winning, so those more familiar challenges lost some of their fear and became the norm.

We’ve certainly been along this road before with England sides of recent memory – built up in the media only to stumble, but for me there is a different feel to this side. It has the feel of winners.  I may well be proved wrong as early as Saturday evening, who knows.  But for those who enjoy England falling flat on their face, preparations should be made for a difficult 7 weeks.

Winning that “Grand Slam” decider on the last Saturday may well be a step too far.  Record breaking occasions – England could well beat the record for most consecutive wins for the Top Nations – are notoriously difficult to negotiate.  I wouldn’t put it past them though.