Heat on Lancaster as England stall

Date published: November 16 2014

Stuart Lancaster’s reign is now under unprecedented scrutiny following consecutive losses to New Zealand and South Africa.

Stuart Lancaster’s reign is now under unprecedented scrutiny following consecutive losses to New Zealand and South Africa.

In the darkest days between 2004-2011, England might have taken heart from running the All Blacks and Springboks so close on the scoreboard, but the standards have been raised and near-misses are no longer acceptable. Nor is five straight Test defeats.

Enjoying 58 percent possession and 60 percent territory (65 and 72 percent in the first half), England relied on the power of their hard-working pack for tries in an alarmingly blunt performance with regard to creativity and attacking spark.

The week before against New Zealand, England started fast but then lost their momentum in the rain and were flattered by the final scoreboard for the second time against the All Blacks in three matches.

This time however their start was atrocious, the worst of the Lancaster era as Danny Care gifted an interception try for Jan Serfontein and England couldn’t string together any flowing attacks despite success at the set-piece.

A combination of resolute defence from the Springboks, no depth or progress from England’s ball carriers and repetitive handling errors meant that despite their dominance of possession and territory, England were wasteful and incohesive.

Even their tries from thundering mauls had an air of unstructured aggression about them. If defeat to the world champions was demoralising, then this was the loss where England’s flaws were painfully exposed.

Care, on his 50th cap, will have been desperate to deliver and yet put his side in an early hole, from then on combining with Farrell to persist with throwing first-up runners into a waiting South African defence without considering a change of tactic.

Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton had shown the week before how an array kicks could unlock the Springbok defence, yet Care and Farrell failed to take note.

Sending the likes of Courtney Lawes and Billy Vunipola repetitively into contact was unforgiving, but those are the physical players England demand metres from.

Instead, Vunipola twice coughed up the ball in contact early on and was then hauled off after 45 minutes.

Much like his Saracens team-mate Farrell, Vunipola seems low on confidence but England rely on him to such a great extent that even after being withdrawn so early, he still had made more carries (ten) than any other England forward.

Getting more purchase from the likes of Dylan Hartley, Dave Attwood, Lawes, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw in that regard is essential for England to progress. Singular notable bursts are too few in Tests against the best.

The Springboks also had a sizeable upper hand at the breakdown, with Marcell Coetzee winning turnover penalties at will.

England don’t need Steffon Armitage to win turnovers, they just need someone to do so, and without Dan Cole and Joe Launchbury around and with Wood and Robshaw not doing the job they fall short in that area.

When the chances fell South Africa’s way, they were simply sharper – Cobus Reinach’s try especially was a thing of beauty.

England now have two games left in November but the two that really mattered, the big chances to make a statement, have now slipped away.

Beating the All Blacks would have given England a psychological boost rather than being about landing a blow on Steve Hansen’s side, while a victory over the Boks would have ended a dire run of 12 matches without a win.

The tide of approval towards Lancaster, consequently, is starting to turn. There is only so much that England can still be ‘learning’ from narrow losses to sides who have overall had the better of England over the last three years.

Still England’s cap count is dwarfed by the big two and still England’s back division remains a patchwork piece of indecision rather than a settled world-beating unit.

Of course, Lancaster isn’t responsible for injuries, or the poor decision-making of his half-backs and leaders, or for Hartley’s unnecessary use of the boot on Duane Vermeulen that put England down to 14 men – symbolic of a dire lack of composure.

Certain moments though will haunt him, such as Attwood’s failure to pass with Anthony Watson out in space on the right wing, as he battles with more questions than solutions. The lack of foresight to recognise those chances and finish them is glaring.

Changes will be made for Samoa – Ben Morgan, George Ford, Ben Youngs and possibly James Haskell all seem likely to start amongst others – with England’s focus now on restoring the public faith with two good performances and victories.

Another defeat, with Australia rounding off November’s fixtures at Twickenham, could turn what was meant to be a month of pre-Rugby World Cup buzz and statements into a disaster.

by Ben Coles