Too little, too late?
March 8, 2012
The return of Manu Tuilagi has made a dramatic impact for England © Getty Images
Stuart Lancaster needs a thumping win against France on Sunday - preferably with a couple of tries - followed by an equally impressive victory over Ireland next week if he is to have any chance of making his temporary job as England's head coach permanent.
Even then it will probably not be enough. Ian Ritchie, the Rugby Football Union's new chief executive, is best known for driving through the project to put a roof on the Wimbledon centre court but he is much more than just a visionary. He also showed he has the leadership and organisational skills to deliver the vision and this week we learned quite a lot about his thinking on the new coach.
In a radio interview he made it very clear that, despite having an advisory panel steeped in rugby knowledge, he will make the final decision because he deems it vitally important that he builds his own team. He stressed the need to find someone he feels he is comfortable working alongside.
John Kirwan's comments after he had been told he would not be considered were also instructive. Highly thought of after spells as national coach with Italy and then Japan, he felt he was ready to take another step up the ladder only to be told that he was too inexperienced because there was no major rugby nation on his CV.
Unless Lancaster produces something sensational in the next two weeks the same reasoning must rule him out as well. Nick Mallett remains the firm favourite to take over after the Six Nations but I have a sneaking suspicion Ritchie has not yet given up on Jake White. His pedigree is perfect and whilst his Brumbies bosses insist he is totally committed to them we have heard nothing from the man himself.
We shall see but Lancaster must be very aware that England will need to show more than fledgling promise if they are to cause an upset in Paris and thereby keep his hopes alive. They certainly improved against Wales but they have still failed to create a try in three matches although it was significant that Manu Tuilagi came closest to making the breakthrough.
In the end Lancaster got lucky with that injury to Charlie Hodgson because it forced his hand. I am sure he would not have changed the back division and we would not have seen Tuilagi until the second-half but yet again the youngster proved he has to be the first name on the team sheet if he is fit. Every team needs line breakers in midfield and he does it in every game he plays.
Owen Farrell also made a decent fist of his first start in the No.10 jersey. His composure reminds me of the young Jonny Wilkinson - now we need to see if can add some spark to the attack. Chris Ashton burst on to the scene as a potent strike runner and Ben Foden has plenty of gas from the back - both need to be brought into the game more from set pieces.
All credit to Ireland who were rightly disappointed that they could not pull it off in Paris but it was a pity in many ways that France were held to a draw. The build to the Grand Slam finale in Cardiff next week that I predicted before the Championship began was going nicely and it is not often that you get two teams going for the ultimate prize on the last weekend. Philippe St Andre has surprisingly changed his half-backs but retains Aurelian Rougerie who just looks totally ill at ease in the centre particularly in defence - Tuilagi's eyes will have lit up when he saw that!
Lancaster also got lucky against Wales with Rhys Priestland having an absolute shocker by his standards. His kicking game was poor and he seemed strangely off the pace but the fact that Wales still found a way to win with a very shaky performance from their playmaker is a measure of how far they have progressed.
I cannot see them slipping up against Italy and they will be further boosted by the return of Matthew Rees at hooker, the one position where they looked a little short on class. The Welsh team normally starts to fall apart as the Championship reaches its climax and Wales have always had a problem with strength in depth but this is the strongest squad I can remember in every way - the new fitness regime has undoubtedly made a huge difference.
Luke Charteris missed the first three games through injury after playing a starring role in the World Cup but is back on the bench for this weekend. And with Sam Warburton also expecting to be fit for next week Warren Gatland could be in the unique position of being able to pick from a full squad for the showdown in Cardiff next weekend. Fingers crossed!
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh