A young England side brimming with attacking intent served notice to the rest of the world with a dominant victory over a vastly experienced Wales on Sunday.
As welcome the result and an end to a three-game losing run at the hands of the Welsh, the most pleasing aspect of their performance – for England fans at least – was the confidence with which they played – from 1 to 15.
They believe in themselves – and none more so than inside centre Billy Twelvetrees. He has his critics with many not convinced by his performances since stepping up last year and he has struggled to sway those opinions as part of an under-performing Gloucester side.
But Lancaster has kept faith with him, convinced of his play-making and defensive ability, and an extended run in the No.12 shirt has paid off for player and coach. A ball-hungry Twelvetrees weighed in with 12 carries for 40-odd metres and shared the distribution workload with 15 passes but the clearest sign that he is playing like he belongs came in the build-up to his side’s second try.
With Wales’ lineout fractured, England turned the screw before Twelvetrees cut them open with delicate chip through the defence having previously alerted Luther Burrell as to what he intended. His perfect execution delivered a try for his midfield partner and went a long way to silencing his doubters while his seven tackles and dominance of a midfield battle with Wales’ Jamie Roberts – a showdown many saw as pivotal to deciding the contest – further endorse Lancaster’s approach.
But Twelvetrees is not the only one playing with a certain swagger. The second row duo of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes are also two shining examples of how Lancaster’s development methods are reaping rich rewards. Both were in brutally efficient form in the Twickenham sunshine with Lawes’ epic shift rightfully earning him the Man of the Match honour.
However, perhaps his most telling contribution was the deft offload he made in the move that almost resulted in a second try for Burrell. It was a sweeping counter-attack that had the home crowd on their feet with a delightful round-the-back pass from Lawes keeping the move alive only for Burrell to be denied by a last-ditch tackle.
It is impossible not to be impressed by this ability to deliver exceptional skill in a high pressure environment – and his willingness to play in such a manner and trust himself – and again it is a perfect example of a player clearly oozing confidence and given the freedom to perform by his coaches.
There were of course others. Fullback Mike Brown continued his march towards what will surely be the Player of the Championship honour with another high-octane and assured showing. His determination and spirit is set to propel England to great heights while fly-half Owen Farrell and scrum-half Danny Care are also blessed with the same characteristics.
But there remain concerns about Farrell’s back-up George Ford – not in terms of ability – but his lack of exposure at this level. He finally made his Test bow against the Welsh but is going to need much more than the minute of game-time he was given to find his feet on the international stage.
With the championship title on the line and with Farrell in fine form, there is little chance of Ford being handed the No.10 shirt for England’s final clash with Italy next Saturday. And the three-Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand that follows in June would appear an incredibly hostile environment in which to try and build confidence.
There is no respite in the autumn either with the Kiwis also providing the opposition in the opening November international – a series that also includes testing dates with South Africa, Samoa and Australia. At this stage Lancaster’s focus will be on refining his options with the World Cup by then less than 12 months away.
There do not appear too many options as to where Ford can get the game time that will encourage the confidence that is currently firing many of his England colleagues. As things stand, even if he sees action in all of England’s remaining games this year, Ford will enter World Cup year on single-digit Test caps. It is a far from ideal scenario and one moment of misfortune – remember Dan Carter in 2011? – would see him tasked with guiding England’s assault on the sport’s biggest prize.
Ford is without doubt a very able player and as a former IRB Junior Player of the Year has also graced high-level international competition. He continues to mature on a weekly basis in the Premiership but needs greater experience of the Test arena if he is to reach his full potential.
Lancaster has hardly put a foot wrong since taking charge of England and will be aware of the issue – especially having long stressed the need for his squad to have the required experience come the World Cup, but where will Ford get his?
Perhaps he will take the next stage of his development against the Azzurri next weekend? With Ireland currently on top of the table thanks to a healthy points difference, England will need to win big in Rome to keep the pressure on their title rivals and Ford may be just the man to provide fresh impetus late in the game and punish a tiring Italian defence.
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