Lancaster Gets Real

Date published: November 25 2014

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England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster resisted calls to make significant changes to his starting line-up for last Saturday’s meeting with SA.

Never one to overreact, England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster resisted calls to make significant changes to his starting line-up for last Saturday’s meeting with South Africa following a disappointing 24-21 defeat to New Zealand the previous week.

Indeed the Cumbrian’s only change was forced by an injury to Semesa Rokoduguni which brought his Bath team-mate Anthony Watson into the team for the first time. This week, however, his decision to move George Ford into the starting line-up for the first time and shift Owen Farrell in to inside centre, shows that he is running out of patience with his under-performing squad and needs them to fire on Saturday against Samoa.

Heavy Favourites

With England going into their third Autumn International as heavily fancied favourites (they are currently 1/20 with 32Red and up at 1/33 with Paddy Power), it is possible that Lancaster is testing the strength of his squad ahead of the all-important final test against Australia. Alternatively, the raft of changes that he has made- in total there are six including Farrell’s positional switch– could signify an end to the cosy relationship that he seems to have enjoyed with his big name stars and a realisation that the World Cup is less than a year away and performances must improve quickly.

Brief Glimpses

In both of England’s Autumn Internationals so far there have been glimpses of what Lancaster’s side is capable of, running the All Blacks ragged in the first half two weeks ago, and then coming back from 20-6 down to draw level with South Africa in the second half. Of course, England went on to lose both games (eventually going down 28-31 to the Springboks) as the brief moments of excitement faded into memory amidst a series of mistakes.

No-Win for Lancaster

Saturday’s fixture against Samoa is one of those no-win occasions that coaches like Lancaster hate so much. If England lose then Lancaster could find himself out of a job, regardless of the long-term contract he signed last year, and if they win then they will have done exactly what is expected of them. Samoa arrive at Twickenham on the back of a 24-13 defeat to Italy in their last international and, although they will undoubtedly provide a stern physical test, they have shown nothing to suggest that they are capable of actually beating England. Anything less than a big home win would be considered a disappointment by the Twickenham fans.

Performance and Results

Aside from the result, Lancaster and the England fans will be looking for improvements in three key areas;
• Discipline
• Decision-making
• Unforced Errors

Discipline

Having got back into contention against South Africa, Lancaster’s men were the architects of their own downfall, conceding a series of three penalties which took them from being in possession in their opponents half to being back behind their own posts having conceded a try. After falling behind once again England looked to their figureheads for guidance but all that their most experienced player, Dylan Hartley, could offer was a stray boot aimed Duane Vermeulen. The hooker was duly dispatched to the sin bin and England’s chances faded.

In the days following the South Africa defeat Lancaster will have made it crystal clear to his players what he expects of them and he will be desperate to see a lower penalty count against Samoa. Dylan Hartley has paid for his indiscretions by being benched for this weekend and Lancaster will be forced to take similar action if there is any repeat against the Samoans.

Decision making

England’s backline have lacked creative spark over the last two matches, with Owen Farrell seeking the kind of structured, formulaic game that just isn’t possible against opponents as good as New Zealand and South Africa. Outside him Kyle Eastmond has not enjoyed any of the space that he needs to flourish, and the rest of the backs have barely seen any ball at all.

Lancaster’s decision to bring George Ford in at number 10 will hopefully see the ball used more imaginatively but the Leicester man must only opt to play when it is appropriate. After kicking poorly against New Zealand, Farrell opted to play keep-ball against South Africa but, in not clearing his lines, he put his colleagues under pressure. If Ford can find the right balance of structured, pragmatic rugby and off-the-cuff improvisation then he will be a success against Samoa, if he fails to deliver then Lancaster will be left with an even bigger headache.

Unforced errors

Linked to discipline and decision making are unforced errors. In the wet of the last two weekends there have been far too many dropped balls and loose passes for anyone’s liking. If South Africa and New Zealand can keep hold of the ball in poor conditions and adjust their game to suit their surroundings then England must be able to do that too. Whilst Samoa will surely cough up more possession than either of England’s last two opponents, the home side must look after the ball as though they were playing the world’s best if they are to restore the faith of the Twickenham crowd.

Lay down a Marker

Last weekend’s defeat against South Arica was England’s fifth loss in a row. Thankfully for them, they should have few problems in ending the run this weekend but they can’t afford to just settle for the victory. Saturday will be all about the performance for Lancaster and his men and, by making so many changes, the England coach has signified his intent to lay down a marker ahead of the Australia game on the 29th November.

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