Rugby Union - 2015 RBS Six Nations - England v Italy - Twickenham

In the aftermath of a poor England showing on Saturday night fresh problems will have been brought to the forefront of head coach Stuart Lancaster’s mind.   For two, maybe three years now, England’s pack has thrived, dominating many in the northern hemisphere and, whilst touring New Zealand last year, rivalling the power of a mighty All Black team.  Whilst the backline has chopped and changed considerably during Lancaster’s time as coach the forwards have seemed relatively solid, with little need for wholesale changes.  This makes the events of Saturday night very worrying.

England’s narrow victory at Twickenham the previous week highlighted many of the same issues.  While the backs flourished, the forwards stumbled their way through the match looking sluggish and slow, all the while lacking any sign of clear leadership.  However, this was a second string side without the likes of Chris Robshaw and Courtney Lawes to push on and help defeat an awesome French pack.  Robshaw and Lawes were on the pitch this time, but their usual leadership qualities seemed to have evaded them.  With England’s discipline failing, star fly half George Ford struggling under the pressure of a fast French line, and the pack struggling to pack down atop the awful French turf at scrum time, England’s leading men needed to stand up and lead with their mouths as well as their actions.  This failure in leadership will add to Stuart Lancaster’s ever growing list of problems.

If there’s one thing Stuart Lancaster would have hoped to get out of this match it would be for Luther Burrell to shine some light on the midfield battle for 12 and 13.  Had Burrell played well last night he would have had a certain place in the 31 man squad, alongside twinkle toed speedster Jonathan Joseph, and resident hard man Brad Barrit, leaving one place to scrap over between Burgess, Slade and Twelvetrees.  However he simply didn’t perform.  Granted there wasn’t much to work with for the first seventy minutes, however his performance has not made Lancaster’s decision any more easy.  Remember that six must become four, and neither Sam Burgess nor Henry Slade can put their hands up and say that they didn’t impress last week at Twickenham.  One player who did impress in this rare defeat was Danny Cipriani.  Solid in defence and dangerous in attack he had a part to play in both tries, scoring one and being heavily involved in another.  This performance brings him back into contention and surely warrants him a place in the final squad; after all, he did all of this whilst playing out of position.  As a utility player his value cannot be underestimated.  However having the effect that he had one may ask why he wasn’t brought on at half time in place of a stuttering George Ford.  Arguments can be made about his kicking game however against the Barbarians recently he made twelve kicks out of twelve.  Surely that kind of consistency, paired with his effectiveness on Saturday suggests that he should be considered more seriously for a starting place.  Clive Woodward himself said that Cipriani should have been playing 10 for England for the last three years, if anyone should be listened to, it’s our only world cup winning coach.

With the world cup barely a month away England’s lineout issues could not have come at a worse time.  In two weeks, four hookers have tried, and all four have come up short.  With Rob Webber seemingly nonexistent at Twickenham, and Luke Cowan-Dickie showing the type of inexperience that puts him more in mind for 2019 than this coming tournament, the stage was set for either Tom Youngs or Jamie George to swoop in and eliminate all of England’s worries, nailing their place in the final squad in the process.  Both tried, both failed.  While there can be no complaints about Tom Youngs work rate, fifteen tackles in forty minutes is quite something to behold, he is yet to transfer the solidity of his club form to the international stage.  This leaves space open for Jamie George to demonstrate his ability to play calm, level headed rugby, and just get the basics right.  George, ever consistent for Saracens, was good in the loose, but struggled with lineout fever just as those before him struggled.  All of this begs the question, has Lancaster made the right decision leaving Dylan Hartley at home?  The controversial hooker has shown consistently throughout the last few years that he can cope under the pressure that comes with international rugby, a trait that England so badly need.  With a month till we get underway, perhaps Lancaster would be better off swallowing his pride and allowing Dylan Hartley to come in and rectify England’s lineout woes.  Though the likeliness of that happening is up there with seeing Steffon Armitage in an England shirt again, it is an interesting thought.

Above all the events of Saturday night show that England have far more work to do before they are ready to take on a star studded Australian team and a bloodthirsty Welsh side in a month’s time.  Though Stuart Lancaster has never struggled to win games during his tenure at the fore of English Rugby, he is yet to win a major trophy, something I’m sure he would like to change.  With the potential this current England squad has, that change is certainly possible.  The question is can England show the charisma, the composure, and the courage to make that change?