The problematic equation
March 1, 2012
Stuart Lancaster is in an "ideal position", © Getty Images
I'm not surprised that Stuart Lancaster wears a relaxed, even beaming smile when he meets the media or appears on television. I think he is in the ideal position as England's interim coach, competing in a Six Nations Championship of moderate standard at the end of which he will, if he chooses (or is told by his paymasters to), be able to bail out and hand the job to the long-term appointee.
That man will go to South Africa for three Tests in June and host the southern hemisphere's big guns in November. As things stand, and dependent on the opposition being at full strength, I expect England to get hammered in most, possibly all, of those matches.
Much of what Lancaster has done in recent weeks - surrounding the narrow wins against very ordinary opposition in Italy and Scotland, and a home defeat to Wales - has not been about rugby. He has dealt brilliantly with the mess in public relations - literally, the England team's relationship with its public - left over from the Rugby World Cup.
The Cumbrian with the impeccable coaching CV - impeccable, that is, if you are looking for certificates and courses completed, not high-level Test or club experience - has forced a turnover almost as impressive as that wrought by Ian Evans, Sam Warburton and Scott Williams for Wales' winning try last weekend. He has made England likeable again.
This is not to say Lancaster has left everything alone on the field. By demanding England play a containing game without giving away penalties he has asked a lot of a much changed team. When Matt Stevens came on against Wales and almost immediately conceded the penalty that made the score 12-12, it was a sample of the Martin Johnson days and it jarred with the Lancaster approach. It was put to Lancaster when we met the squad in that venerable seat of rugby learning, Loughborough, this week that Stevens has "form" in this regard. "Not on my watch," Lancaster said, with a hard edge showing briefly through the genial veneer.
It is good that new players are bedding in, and handy though a little unsatisfactory to have the get-out clause that when something goes wrong it is because the players are getting used to each other, or new systems being put in place. A line-out cock-up against Wales was said by Lancaster to have resulted from Dylan Hartley of Northampton doing one thing and Geoff Parling of Leicester thinking another.
Meanwhile, the backs look no more capable than before of encountering a three-on-two or two-on-two in the opposition 22 and knowing instinctively how to run a try in. It should be called the English disease, and until a backline is picked with the cleverness of - from history - Mike Catt, Austin Healey, Will Greenwood and the like, or, from the recent past and present, James Simpson-Daniel, it will endure. Lancaster can shove this kind of endemic problem down the line, unless he gets the job full-time.
Those bewitching secrets of top-class finishing have plainly eluded England in three matches of two tries through charge-downs (i.e. offensive defence). Andy Farrell is undoubtedly a solid character with man-management skills that appeal to players and peers.
His England back division is a holding operation, based on Saracens' hyper-active defence and the increasingly prevalent influence of rugby league principles. Like Lancaster's influence, this can be accepted as useful and apt while England are rebuilding. They will need much more variety and skill to unlock the defences of France, South Africa and New Zealand.
In Manu Tuilagi they have a fantastic weapon for getting over the gainline but it will take a resourceful and clever midfield and back-row to make the most of this as the young Samoan has not yet demonstrated a talent for distribution to match his thrilling pace, sidestep and ability to generate momentum from almost a standing start. He ought to be studying recordings of Ma'a Nonu as an example of someone who gradually grafted those more subtle touches onto his game (though New Zealanders who are bound to have followed Nonu's career more closely than me may beg to differ).
One part of this problematic equation is who to play at fly-half. In the all-round enjoyable occasion that was England v Wales - good set-piece contest, some running rugby, not too many penalties, great weather - Owen Farrell deserved the acclaim that came his way. But I have seen a lot of him since he moved with his family from Wigan to Hertfordshire seven years ago.
He is still a work in progress as a No.10 and I feel he should continue for the time being to start in the centres, where he played against Scotland and Italy. I have watched him in school matches and at Under-16 level for England, through his early Saracens appearances and his fantastically composed and gutsy performance in the 2011 Premiership final at the age of 19, and at the moment he is a facilitator of a fly-half, out of the Stephen Jones mould, rather than an all-court talent like Dan Carter, who can do everything including making line breaks.
Considering the proficiency of defences these days, a No.10 who has a hundred ways of moving the ball around the field - short passes, long passes, line kicking, chip kicking, cross kicking - as Farrell clearly does might suit England fine. But if you are comparing him as a fly-half with the young Jonny Wilkinson, or with Carter - and why not if you want England to be the best - that inability to beat a man one on one, and therefore generate backline attacks behind the first line of cover, means the team is lacking a priceless piece of the jigsaw.
Without it, England will continue to rely on power rather than creativity. When even Wales can turn up these days with a back division looking fit to play basketball combined with WWE wrestling, that will not always get the job done.
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