Ewen McKenzie has already started the rehabilitation of the Wallabies by picking three new fly-halves and I still rate Australia’s chances in 2015 World Cup very highly. They have power and pace everywhere you look, just like Wales, who will also fancy their chances in two years time. The physical menace of the Aussies and the Welsh all adds up to a pool of death and England just have to get their selections right if they are not to make an embarrassingly early exit.
England’s ‘collective’ approach cost them in terms of Lions selection, as very few of their players had stand-out qualities to attract Gatland and his selectors. Tom Wood was one of the unlucky to miss out on a Lions tour, but his performance in Argentina with England may result in Robshaw losing both the captaincy and his place. A number of other players put their hands up against the Pumas, although it has to be placed in context. England’s first ever clean sweep was over a second or even third string side, supplemented by semi pros or even rank amateurs.
Nevertheless, had Lancaster entrusted the likes of Twelvetrees, Wade, Brown (at full-back), Foden and Burns with some England starts in the Six Nations, he might have developed his attacking options much more aggressively. This could be down to Andy Farrell, who was rumoured in Australia to have upset the more attack-minded Lions with his conservatism or even ignorance of back play combinations.
Lest that sound unfair, we should bear in mind the dullness of England’s back play in the last six months, Scotland excepted when Twelvetrees played at centre, and of course the All Blacks game when Tuilagi let rip.The creative juices of our back row and half-backs are also under scrutiny. In short, there are more questions than answers for England and Lancaster knows the clock is ticking. One thing is for sure, the cupboard is full, as it should be with England’s financial and playing resources.
One key strength for England is in the front row where the awesome Alex Corbisiero can exploit the dysfunctional scrummage laws to turn a match on its head, in league with the ever-improving and already impressive Tom Youngs.
One of my best memories of the summer, outside the last 20 minutes of the third Lions test, when Roberts, Halfpenny and North showed the threat of Wales’s world class running skills, is the triumph of the Waikato Chiefs in the Super 15. In defending their title, the Chiefs showed that the scrummage doesn’t have to be the dominant factor in a match of intensity. It seemed at first as if they were too one dimensional, with the Brumbies defending with great intelligence as you would expect from a Jake White team. Yet the Chiefs never lost their ambition, and the key score came from a slashing break by the reserve full back Robbie Robinson. It wasn’t perfect rugby by any stretch, but it shows you can go out at the highest level and perform on the edge, something the All Blacks have consistently achieved over the previous decade.
The common thread in of all this is Wayne Smith, the best ’Attack ’ coach in the world. How would the England backs be performing now under his tutelage, I wonder? England’s Premiership clubs are all making bullish noises ahead of the new season. Even Bath have brought in some young talent and I can envisage their new recruits Watson, Ford and Joseph all producing international style performances. Gloucester and Wasps also have buckets of young talent in their ranks as have the Harlequins and with Saracens and Leicester always strong, the rest may struggle to keep up.
How England would love to say the same thing.
For the Autumn Internationals, will Lancaster cast aside conservatism, and select ambitiously? England may live or die at the World Cup on how their coach decides to play in the next few months.