When the going got tough:
England had no tough nuts and were easily cracked. This was clearly visible in the last 20 minutes of both the Wales and Australia games; in the former England had a ten point lead and failed to close the game out, and with Australia they threw away any chance of catching up by panicking and falling foul of the referee.
Chris Robshaw made the wrong call when kicking to the corner. There was still time to get into Welsh territory for the drop goal. Owen Farrell and George Ford shirked duty when neither demanded they take the kick. Geoff Parling then exacerbated the situation when calling the subsequent throw to the front of the lineout. Against Australia, Farrell’s yellow may have been harsh with Matt Giteau slightly offside, but he still should have wrapped his arms around the player. Sam Burgess was lucky not to join him in the sin bin for the high tackle. When England needed calm leadership, two supposedly big match players failed.
At a time when England needed leaders there were none with the guts, determination and clear heads required to win either of the key games.
Lack of forward power:
You need an edge in the pack, a bit of grunt. Players who can put their hands up and close out a tight game or have the guts to chase it. In 2003 England had that hardness in Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, amongst others, and now Ireland have the likes of Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien, Wales have Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, whilst the Southern hemisphere teams boast such players in abundance. These are by no means dirty players, but they are certainly no angels.
This has been England’s problem; instead of having enforcers who toughen the team around them when times get hard, England have a group of polite gentlemen. This may have instilled the right image in the shirt, but this is no substitute for real belief, for actual power. England need to sort out the scrum and find at least one breakdown specialist.
Michael Cheika has highlighted the importance of a proper openside by playing both Michael Hooper and David Pocock, Ireland beat France through their back row, and New Zealand have always understood the need for a talented poacher. This is what England needs. Robshaw has to hang up his seven jersey, although he could still be in contention at six for his pure work rate and experience. However, there are more exciting players available.
No clear plan:
England expected their backs to play off quick ball with the forwards overpowering the opposition in the set piece. We saw in the warm up games that the lineout was a mess and there was not enough power in the scrum. This was evident once more against Fiji.
So what did Lancaster do? He panicked. Instead of keeping an exciting ten and a centre combination who could ship the ball to the wingers, he decided on trying yet more midfield combinations with his 14th centre pairing in four years. He threw away the plan that brought a plethora of tries in the Six Nations and it was clear that the players lacked understanding.
When Jonathan Joseph was injured Henry Slade should have been brought in as a similar replacement. Instead, Brad Barritt was played out of position and, a week later against Australia when injury occurred, Lancaster’s bench was so poorly judged that an injury on the wing meant that three players were out of position. That is simply inexplicable.
England should have learnt by now who their best players are and what the plan is. Yes, this problem has been worsened by injury, bad behaviour and people not performing under pressure (Manu Tuilagi, Dylan Hartley, Danny Cipriani and Billy Twelvetrees), but that is not an excuse when there is unnecessary chopping and changing and, to be honest, dreadful selection decision.
Lancaster and his team’s lack of experience has been clear when up against the likes of Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt in the Six Nations. This was only going to be exaggerated in the World Cup.
For four years Lancaster and the RFU have been trying to instil the right “culture” into the England set-up after the dwarf tossing, ferry jumping, stag-do scenes of 2011. This was the wrong priority. The right culture doesn’t win games. Winning games builds the right culture. We need someone who knows how to win.
Farrell Senior needs to go to remove any hint of nepotism. This is a reason why Mike Ford must stay at Bath.
England have a strong group of youngsters coming through. The talent shown in the last few under 20 World Cups cannot be wasted. Slade, Maro Itoje, Dave Ewers, Elliot Daly among many others need to be given a chance, under the guidance of the experienced Mike Brown, Joe Lauchbury and Ben Youngs. Lancaster does not have the guts to do this. Had Steve Hansen been in charge of England, Slade would have been thrown into international cauldron in the 2014 autumn games, so he would have been ready to replace Joseph when skill was needed against Wales.
England needs a coach who will have confidence in the youngsters, rather than a headmaster who appoints rule-abiding prefects who can’t adapt to the situation. Lancaster just doesn’t have the guts to give his players the freedom to play. England were over coached and so underperformed.