Lancaster demands leaders step up
October 31, 2012
England boss Stuart Lancaster casts an eye over his players during their St George's Park training camp © PA Photos
England coach Stuart Lancaster may have reappointed Chris Robshaw as his captain for the end of year internationals but several other key players will be expected to show their leadership skills over the coming weeks.
Lancaster was a relieved man as he confirmed Robshaw as his skipper having seen the Quins flanker take a boot to the face during his side's Premiership victory over London Irish last weekend. The England boss called the decision a "no brainer" once fears over Robshaw's fitness had been allayed such is his respect for a player he hails as "a real inspiration".
However, one of Robshaw's trusted lieutenants will not be on duty against Fiji on November 10 and most likely will also be missing when England tackle Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in the following weeks - hooker Dylan Hartley. The Saints skipper has been sidelined with a knee injury that looks set to sideline him for the entire campaign and rob Robshaw and Lancaster of one of the key figures in the leadership group.
"There's no doubt that Dylan is a strong leader and he'll be a big miss in that regard," Lancaster said. "To have the chance to play in such a massive series snatched away so close to the event is cruel for him."
Hartley's enforced absence leaves England without one of their talisman but Lancaster is confident that the team remains in safe hands. "One of the pleasing things about training today," said Lancaster. "Chris was quite quiet, he wasn't leading things and organising, it was your Toby Floods, Owen Farrells, you're Lee Dicksons and that's the point I keep trying to make about captaincy.
"Yes Chris is the figurehead, but he needs and we all need all those people to stand up and take a leading role whether it is Geoff Parling running the lineout or Brad Barritt running the defence. There is no doubt about it that Dylan is a strong leader and he was a good support for Chris and someone else must step into that role."
While he may have been stripped of Hartley's services, Lancaster has received a boost with the return of Northampton flanker Tom Wood to the selection mix having seen his opportunities post-World Cup thwarted by injury. While admitting those players who played well during the series with South Africa in June had earned some credit, he said he would be foolish to ignore the qualities possessed by Wood.
"He was a key player for England prior to the World Cup and this is his first opportunity for England in the new regime if you like," said Lancaster. "and you wouldn't rule out Tom Wood from anyone's team because he also brings that leadership quality you are looking for."
Injuries could see England field a relatively inexperienced front row with Hartley's likely replacement Leicester's Tom Youngs untried at Test level and another contender - London Irish's David Paice - with only two caps to his name. Injuries at prop could also see uncapped Saracens loose-head Mako Vunipola earn a start despite having only made a handful of starts for his club.
It is a prospect that does not faze Lancaster who wasted no time in injecting eight fresh faces for his first game in charge against Scotland in this year's Six Nations. "One thing I would say about trusting players who have not had the necessary capped experience, we have always gone with our gut instinct even if they haven't got that much experience, we will back them," insisted Lancaster. "If you look at the seven new caps against Scotland - they haven't let us down."
England used 28 players in their recent three-Test series against the Springboks and Lancaster has reiterated his plan to look at a similar amount of options again over the coming weeks despite the on-going battle for world ranking points ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup pool draw in December.
"We recognise where we are on our journey as a group and we also recognise the three teams in particular that we are playing have just spent a long time playing together, learning together playing against other sides and that time is crucial in team development so we recognise where they are and the challenge they pose, he said. "But equally we are growing on confidence and ready to take on the challenge.
"In South Africa at the end of long hard season we showed we could go toe-to-toe but didn't quite have enough, and this next four weeks will be a real defining point for us as to where we are," he added. "The reality is the world ranking will be concluded at the end of this series and the World Cup draw will be made on the back of it - I will not be trying to work out the scores on the doors I'll just be trying to win each game as it comes."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.