The traditionalists will never agree but November is the most important month for England.
The Six Nations does not tell a team where it is in world terms. Results mask competence. Last season Stuart Lancaster was heralded for a winning start to his career. Four wins from five games is a decent record but it did not tell supporters much.
The wishful majority thought it told them enough for Lancaster to be offered the job full time which he duly was. Yet whatever the weather issues in Rome and Edinburgh England did not prove themselves in any way but a gutsy one.
I attended a Wayne Smith conference in Oxford on Monday and he referred to the last Calcutta Cup match as one Scotland had no right to lose and should never have lost. A Charlie Hodgson charge down and Scotland's chronic inability to turn possession into tries turned a poor performance into a brave win. The take in Italy was the same and it was not until defeat against Wales at Twickenham that England showed much offensive firepower.
Only a fool thinks it will be easy but England is desperately in need of what the New Zealander calls 'optimistic' rugby. No other brand will beat the best.
Quotes of the week
Sub-standard France and an early injury in the weak Irish front row magnified the efforts of England. A good set of results but against a second rate set of opponents. The concerns were realised in South Africa with two defeats before English fight and determination came to the rescue and salvaged a draw in Port Elizabeth. This was England's best result to date under the new management but it was another game of almost anonymous attacking.
More is needed in November when the opposition constitutes the world ranking first, second and third teams. Granted home advantage for all these games England is expected to produce at least two wins from the big three games as well as an initial victory against Fiji this Saturday.
To achieve this, the side will have to deliver a lot more than it has thus far. If it beats two of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand England will take a stride towards a top pool seeding in the 2015 World Cup and a gigantic step towards becoming world class; ie one of the best three or four teams in the world.
They are currently ranked four but when I asked a patriot like Lawrence Dallaglio at a QBE function last Wednesday whether they were justifiably rated four he stated that Wales were ahead as well. It is a view shared by most neutrals.
Yet Wales, Grand Slam champions of Europe, lost 3-0 to an Australian side that has been vilified in its own country most of the summer. Scotland's win in the wind and rain against a midweek strength Wallaby team apart, it was a summer shorn of wins against the leading nations.
If we judge a team on results in the average Six Nations we must do likewise in the autumn internationals. Supporters cannot have an attitude where winning is all one month and not the next. Therefore, according to the criteria of those who cheered Stuart Lancaster's men last Six Nations, winning is everything; against the best.
I intend to be consistent - I thought performance was as great if not greater measurement throughout his first few months. I'll not change. There is no need to anyway because the only way England will win three from four of this month's matches is by playing some top class rugby.
Defence alone prevailed against weaker Six Nations teams. It will not suffice against the best. At the Wayne Smith conference the former All Black coach quoted Clive Woodward who wrote recently of the need for teams to score tries. When England drew 26-26 with New Zealand in the mists of time, Woodward apparently told his team to target five tries. They managed three but Woodward is quoted again as saying this was the moment everything changed in the mindsets of the players, so a senior pro like Lawrence Dallaglio said at the time.
It takes a quantum leap to see this team targeting five tries against the big three but a game plan that doesn't stress the need for say, three, is likely to come up short. Let's hear nothing about brave defence and limited attack. Defence, as Mike Catt admitted to me last week, is the easy part, there are a few more frills required in attack.
This England team still has problems with its midfield. Poor Mike Brown seems set to miss out because Lancaster has to start with Alex Goode. The Saracen is a clever ball player but probably not a superior fifteen to the Harlequin but midfield limitations demand the balance of the extra distributor playing second five as much as full back. It reveals the problems elsewhere as well as the often canny selection skills of Lancaster who is an infinitely better picker of players than Martin Johnson was.
Smith talked of the need for 'optimistic rugby' and how such a mindset can liberate players. I am not sure that Wayne does not underestimate the challenge faced with players so technically inferior from an early age to the Kiwis but the point is nevertheless valid. England is only going to improve as an attack force if it emerges from its shell and has a go. Counter attack from deep when opposing wingers are deep; work out strike moves from scrum and line out, spend as much time on support lines as defensive drills; only a fool thinks it will be easy but England is desperately in need of what the New Zealander calls 'optimistic' rugby. No other brand will beat the best.
Against the best England will need to be near its best for the next month and their best requires both attack and defence. It starts with Fiji for whom Akepusi Qera has been drafted in late. I hope the Gloucester man plays. He is a fine performer who deserves a big stage. If Fiji actually have picked on ability and didn't need him originally, I still hope he plays because England will be up against some flanker otherwise!
Fiji is an ideal first game. It allows England to kick out the cobwebs. It allows Tom Youngs - hopefully - a chance to get rid of the throwing demons that snagged him at Gloucester recently. Lancaster was right to pluck him from the Leicester bench to the South African tour and he was right to have him as understudy to Dylan Hartley. The World Cup is a long term project that requires a mix of potential and realisation in the selection process. If he fails to hit his man against Fiji it should not cost England the game although it should cost him a place against Australia. Youngs will feel the pressure but with Geoff Parling - a figure of growing authority at Leicester - to ease him through the nerves, he has a perfect opportunity to find his rhythm.
As do England and, unlike the Six Nations, they will need it if they are to bare scrutiny as an improving team, and a winning one.
STUART ANSWERS YOUR QUESTIONS...
Hi Stuart. Saints appear to be going backwards on the big three (Quins, Tigers and Sarries) in terms of performances and quality of their squad. There play is predictable and one dimensional. Virtually all supporters know the fly half situation is a joke, but the whole team have lacked fizz and creativity this season, and we miss Ashton and Wilson. Supporters on the fans forum are starting to question if Jim Mallinder is the man to bring a major title to the Gardens, or that he should at least shake the coaching team up, with the emphasis being bringing in a new backs or attack coach. One of the richest clubs off the field, and yet never even been to a Premiership final, let alone won one, which is a poor return. What's your thoughts, time to ring in changes come the end of the season? Best regards,
Jay from Banbury
STUART REPLIES: Jay, your concerns are the ones I have been voicing for a few years; I didn't think Jim was ready for England and I always doubted the ability of the team to play with the variety required to win the major trophies. Nothing has changed from this perspective. One thing I would say to a fan however is take your time coming up with thoughts that are as strong as these. A month ago were you stating your worries in so forthright a manner and if the club beat Ulster home and away (the latter I seriously doubt) will you still take the long view?
Hi Stuart. Although I am a staunch Welshman, I do enjoy the Premiership matches so much more. What more does Christian Wade have to do before he is selected for England? Love your show and commentaries.
STUART REPLIES: Martin, flattery will get you everywhere. Wade has to show his defensive alignment has improved considerably from last season. He has started well. Aerially he is much improved and as an attacking force he is downright scary. Wayne Smith has lodged this damned phrase 'optimistic rugby' in my mind; well Wade certainly fits that bill.
Dear Stuart. Obviously the season is well under way and we're all enjoying the action but last week's Lions Special left me thinking? Not one of the panel mentioned bolters?? Every successful Lions side has had a bolter? I hope Mr Gatland goes outside the international panels and picks a balanced squad of real class not caps?? You will no doubt have a few earmarked but after last weekend James Simpson Daniel has got to be up there with Sharples and Burns not too far behind? Imagine Burns playing with quality around him on a hard track?? The options for the Lions are exciting and endless. Let's hope for no narrow mindednesss. Roll on June. Best Wishes,
Andrew (Ireland fan & white Knight!!)
STUART REPLIES: JSD for the Lions. I am up for that. Burns is an interesting contender too on thsoe hard grounds......any other Gloucester players in your mind? How about Marshall, Ulster's impact sub scrum half. I reckon he'll be starting nine soon for Ulster in the big Heineken games....so there you are, Marshall and Simpson Daniel with Burns a slightly wilder card.
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Peter Aird says...
England always suffer if they have an easy victory first up in the Autumn Internationals. Today against Australia shows how important motivation is. Australia were desperate for a win, England didnt even wear their own kit and thought they could roll the Aussies because they lost to France (bya score which flattered France by the way). Traditional rivalry between England and Australia will lift the side that is more motivated. England were pedestrian. And, I know Australia scored from an undetected forward pass, but in what bizarre universe was the Tuilagi fumble a try? If we are going to have TMOs, can we have some who have 20/20 vision and know and understand the rules of Rugby?
Posted 17:21 17th November 2012
Chris Greaney says...
HI Stuart,After Ireland losing the way they did against South Africa this weekend what do you think needs to happpen to get back to winning. Is there a need for change at the top with Declan Kidney stepping down or are there playes he should drop the excuses here is that Ireland lost too many players before hand but when you are nine points up at half time and do not score in the second half questions need to be asked my view is that Kidney has to go.It would be Three years to next World Cup and a new broom needs to come in If/When Kidney steps down i hope Conor O'Shea gets a chance to coach Ireland what do you think Regards Chris Greaney
Posted 22:25 11th November 2012
Tom Curran says...
Hi Stuart, Alex Goode had an undeniably great game on Saturday, but equally undeniable has been the exceptional form of Mike Brown over the last year or so. Goode seemed most effective when coming into the centres, and Fiji didn't have the opportunity to really exploit the fact that England's full-back was often therefore not at home, which the top 3 could do in the coming weeks. Is there a good case to be made for Goode starting 13 to answer the questions over creativity in the midfield that have dogged England since Will Greenwood's retirement, with Brown an international class option to play at full-back? And how realistic a prospect would that be, given Lancaster's tendency towards non-contentious selection?
Posted 12:44 11th November 2012
Nicholas Cole says...
1. Given the problems currently faced by Fiji in light of the allegations of bribing players not to play for their country how do you feel about a rethink for the pacific islands teams? They struggle financially due to the nations not getting the high profile games that the other nations get. As highlighted in the rugby club this is largely due to the fact that they do not compete for 80 minutes in games and therefore the games are not demanded for. The IRB are not willing to invest lots of money into the 3 nations and therefore the problem will remain the same. How about reforming the Pacific Isles and investing some money in them? The team would be significantly stronger and could compete in the 4 nations. They would be the West Indies of rugby. They obviously have the talent as highlighted by Samoa¿s win in Australia last year. It would also solve their problem of strength in depth while at the same time allowing 3 budgets to be rolled into one from the IRB. It would allow them to field a fully professional side, which is needed if they are to compete with teams in the top nations. A side could potentially look like the following 1, Soane Tonga'uiha, 2 Ti'i Paulo, 3 James Johnson, 4 Daniel Leo, 5 Joe Tekori, 6 Steve Mafi, 7 Maurie Fa'asavalu, 8 Akapusi Qera, 9 Taniela Moa, 10 Tusi Pisi, 11 Alexandra Tuilagi, 12 Sireli Naqelevuki, 13 George Pisi, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 15 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 16 Aleki Lutui, 17 Sona Taumalolo, 18 Cencus Johnson, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Chris Hala'ufia, 21 David Lemi, 22 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolo, 23 Kahn Fotuali'i
Posted 17:17 9th November 2012
Ed W says...
As an Englishman living in Christchurch in NZ, not hard to see why England are still lagging behind the Southern sides - apart from those Woodward years when we were blessed with some of the best players on the globe (and were also helped by average SA, NZ and Aus sides). Watching the ITM Cup in NZ, all the teams play the All Black way - they throw the ball around, aren't afraid of defeat, and play some thrilling Rugby - encouraged to offload in the tackle, look for space and to score tries. As a result, this feeds the National Side, so players can easily step up into the jersey. England's problem is there's a huge game between the Premiership and International. Team England are not Team Rugby Union in England. As a result, any manager has a short period of time to mould a side - on this basis, not surprising we've always tended to rely on bulk, power, kicking and grinding down opponents. Major changes are needed to move forward....
Posted 10:58 7th November 2012
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