Following England’s inexplicable exit from this year’s world cup, the finger of blame was wagged profusely towards the direction of Lancaster. Questionable decision making on and off the pitch inevitably made him the scapegoat from a nation severely damaged in pride, eventually leading to his dismissal in early November. However, will the host’s horror show during the tournament forever mar Lancaster’s reign as head coach, or will the more forgiving fan look back on his tenure with fond memories?
2012 proved to be a mixed bag for Stuart Lancaster. After the farcical scenes that finished the 2011 world cup, Lancaster was appointed interim head coach and rang the changes. The once capped Chris Robshaw was made captain for the 6 nations, overseeing victories over France, Italy, Ireland and Scotland. However, a narrow loss against Wales meant England finished 2nd.
The future looked promising, and Lancaster was made full time head coach, although there was a worrying trend of defensive rugby and a lack of tries. The summer brought a tour of South Africa. Two slim losses were followed by a 14-14 draw as England once again showed promising signs. The autumn saw perhaps Lancaster’s most famous and impressive result. A routine victory over Fiji started the series well but two slim defeats against Australia and South Africa left it looking like ending with disappointment.
But out of nowhere came the fantastic display against New Zealand and a 38-21 win. The English bullied the all blacks up front, and were clinical through the boot of Owen Farrell and the bulldozing ability of Manu Tuilagi. It was a performance of real power and maturity which had not been evident during the previous two fixtures, all from an England side with world class names.
The 2013 Six Nations championship brought another second placed finish, with England chasing the grand slam going into their final match against Wales, but leaving on the end of a 30-3 thrashing.
This brought about real questions over the balance of the back row, and in particular Robshaw’s ability to play 7 when compared to the turnover prowess Wales possess in Saw Warburton and Justin Tipuric. This championship also saw the combination of Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees in the centres, where the Gloucester man’s playmaking abilities were anticipated to gel nicely with the more hard-running Saracen.
However, Twelvetrees tournament proved to be a mixed bag, as a try on debut was followed by a number of quieter substitute appearances. A tour of Argentina in the summer with a more inexperienced squad due to the Lions tour brought two wins out of two, but the autumn of 2013 could not match the heroics of 2012 as England lost to the All Blacks after beating Australia.
The 2014 six nations side saw Luther Burrell paired with Billy Twelvetrees in the six nations, and Jack Nowell and Jonny May given extended playing time on the wings. England seemed to be playing a more attacking game, and finished second once again after a thrilling final day points chase against Italy.
The team was looking strong. George Ford had finally been blooded, there were genuine options appearing in every position, and Owen Farrell had finally got the back line running. It seemed the balance of Twelvetrees and Burrell in the centres could also finally be the answer to England’s problems. The summer was meant to be true announcement of England as a potentially world cup winning side with a tour to New Zealand.
A first test team not containing any of the players from Saracens or Northampton Saints, who were contesting the Aviva premiership final, fought bravely but lost by 5 points. The second test saw the strongest team of the tour lose by 1 point, before injuries and fatigue took their toll and the third test was more routine for the hosts. The autumn saw George Ford usurp Farrell as first choice fly half and a chance for revenge against New Zealand. But again England suffered narrow defeat, despite a Jonny May wonder try. The following test England lost against South Africa but wins against Samoa and Australia left the series on a higher note.
During the 2015 six nations England once again finished second. The establishment of Bath players Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph in the backline as well as stand-off Ford gave rise to a more expansive game plan. A fine opening day defeat of Wales in Cardiff truly banished the demons of two years before and victories followed over Italy and Scotland, separated by a loss in Dublin.
Once again going into the final weekend the winner would be decided on points difference, and once again England performed admirably, but could not finish with a large enough points difference against France to take the title. Hopes were high that with home advantage, a world cup was still a possibility.
Over the summer the players training involved travelling to Denver and they played three tests, losing and winning one against France, and defeating Ireland. However, a disastrous world cup ensued, with defeats against Wales and Australia leading to England’s worst world cup performance ever. In the media aftermath that followed the world cup Lancaster was removed from the position of head coach.
So where did it all go wrong?
Lancaster did a lot of good in his time as England coach. He instilled a real sense of culture into the England side after the media shambles of 2011. He oversaw the evolution and blooding of a new group of English players, and there is genuine strength in depth in almost every position. It was never going to be possible to create an experienced side with so many new players having to be brought in.
LANCASTER’S TENURE WAS LITTERED WITH ‘NEARLY’S’
Lancaster used 20 different fly-half/centre combinations over the four years, and the changes in the England backline after the success of the 2015 six nations were simply ridiculous. It seemed as though much of the time he simply did not know his first choice fifteen. However, it seemed his tenure was littered with ‘nearlys’. Was Robshaw the right player to make captain when there were questions over whether he should even be in the England side, especially in what seemed the wrong position? Four consecutive second placed finishes in the Six Nations perhaps showed a lack of composure in the big games, and there were too many narrow losses against the bigger oppositions.
JONES’ FIRST MAJOR DECISION WILL BE APPOINTING A CAPTAIN, WITH ROBSHAW FAR FROM A CERTAINTY TO EVEN START
Eddie Jones will be licking his lips at the potential of this England team. With the current crop of young, exciting English players there is the possibility to play many different styles. What he needs to do is choose one and stick with it. Squad wise a number of players are pushing for further inclusion, with Henry Slade a widely tipped option for the 12 shirt and Maro Itoje the bold choice for new captain. A lot of difficult decisions will have to be made, but just imagine a team including the likes of Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, Itoje, Chief’s man Dave Ewers, a proper seven such as Will Fraser or Matt Kvesic- and that’s just the back-row! As an England fan there is a true sense of optimism for the future, it is just a shame it has had to come out of such a disaster of the world cup