Lancaster chooses the pragmatic path to success

By Jots du Jardin @jotsdujardin @TLE_Sport

Stuart Lancaster’s squad selection is an admission that he’d be happy to only reach the quarter finals in next year’s World Cup. It’s the type of squad he believes he’ll need to beat Australia and Wales in 2015, not South Africa, New Zealand and the Wallabies this Autumn.

In his press conference after announcing his squad, Lancaster was uncompromising in his message:

“To be the best it’s not about the flash stuff,” he said.

“Game management is one of the key things we look for in our fly-halves.”

“Jonny Wilkinson as the benchmark.”

This is a team destined to play what is in essence, Warrenball; a strategy of uncomplicated attacking, an emphasis on blitz defence, and kicking for territory that’s named after its most notable proponent, Warren Gatland.

As Dean Ryan said in his Guardian column this week, “England have a solid, serviceable pack but behind them there is the usual big hole.”

The biggest English proponents of an evolved style of Warrenball in the past few years have been Saracens. England backs coach, Andy Farrell, is cut from Saracens cloth. He started as a skills coach there in 2009 before being promoted to first team coach in 2010 and leading them to their first Aviva Premiership title in 2011.

Alex Sanderson, the Saracens forwards coach, in a recent interview  for The Times made clear that the team’s priorities are based upon intensive statistical analysis. First and foremost they do not play from their own third; that is “non-negotiable.” Sanderson goes on to say that their statistics show that “the longer the game goes on, the more phases you go through in attack and the more chance the opposition have of turning you over”. A strategy which dates back to Farrell’s time there.

Farrell also learnt from Gatland first hand. He was the only coach from outside the Welsh set-up on the winning Lions tour to Australia in 2013. Australia are of course England’s biggest competition to win Pool A next year. A test series which was especially notable for a deciding match in which Gatland declined to select Brian O’Driscoll in favour of a bruising all Welsh centre combination.

Kyle Eastmond is in the squad because his club form demands it. But June 21, 2014 was confirmation that “Kyle Eastmond, England 12” is a better Halloween costume than test selection. There’s a reason Shane Williams played on the wing. Leaving aside Manu Tuilagi replacement Jonathan Joseph, the other three England centres – Brad Barritt, Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees – average 6’2 and 16 stone. It’s not quite Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies but it’s serviceable until Tuilagi returns from his groin injury in 2015.

Due to his superlative form over the past year Mike Brown is approaching second name on the team sheet status. Owen Farrell is a certainty for a different reason. At his press conference Stuart Lancaster went out of his way to commend Stephen Myler – which is effectively tacit praise of Farrell. When asked for the specific attributes he seeks in a ten, the head coach named “consistency of skill execution, taking the ball to the line, goal-kicking, finding touch” – all  strengths of Farrell and Myler, and a very public criticism of Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns.

All four wings selected have at one point shown promise, but whether due to youth (Jack Nowell), inexperience (Semesa Rokoduguni), poor club form (Marland Yarde) or a baffling passion for horizontal runs behind his own teammates (Jonny May), none yet inspires enough confidence to merit serious analysis.

Until Lee Dickson can get consistent playing time in his own team and Ben Youngs continues to underperform behind an injury-riddled Tigers pack, Danny Care will be the presumptive England 9.

This is a backline picked to win matches but to win a war of attrition, play the percentages and keep it close. It’s a strategy that Wales tried and failed in the 2014 Six Nations as other teams adapted to Warrenball’s repetition. However it tends to produce such close results that commentators only question the implementation of your tactics, not whether or not you should remain in your post. A very solid footing on which to approach the 2019 World Cup, Mr Lancaster.

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