Ruthless Lancaster will change England up for Aussie challenge in bid to find top gear
23:24 GMT, 11 November 2012
From a coaching perspective, the scenario is perfect. A half-century of points and seven tries to ignite this autumn campaign, but enough glitches along the way to ensure England’s players will be subjected to a harsh post-mortem.
Stuart Lancaster and his assistants have the luxury of conducting a critical review on the back of a rousing victory. They will have ample ammunition at their disposal to ensure the feet of their squad are kept fixed to the floor. Five days before confronting wounded Wallabies, this is no time for back-slapping.
‘I don’t think there is any danger of us getting carried away,’ said England’s head coach. Nor should there be.
Tough call: Charlie Sharples nearly had a hat-trick of tries against Fiji but could lose his place to Chris Ashton
He added: ‘You only have to look at the players in the changing room — they were quite pleased with the performance but they weren’t shouting from the rooftops.
‘We recognise the challenges ahead and we know we’ll have to up our game to win next week.’
It is absolutely vital for England’s prospects in the next three weeks that all the holes in their performance in this first QBE International against sadly poor opposition are laid bare. For all the gloss of the final scoreline and the undoubted class of some of the home side’s attacking craft on Saturday, there are issues to address. The video screening on Monday will illuminate several gremlins.
Full back Alex Goode produced ample evidence that he should be a contender for next summer’s tour, with a man-of-the-match performance full of guile and nous.
Captain Chris Robshaw was typically full of energy and endeavour, without dramatically advancing his own case for selection, while Danny Care showcased the speed and eye for a gap which would be such an asset in Australia.
Manu Tuilagi is another who took a positive step in the right direction with his power running, his improved distribution and his tries.
Before the eulogies, let’s tackle what the management would term the ‘work-ons’. First of all, England were dreadful for almost the entire first quarter; conceding the initiative to their outclassed rivals and failing to regain it in a hurry. After 15 minutes they had claimed 19 per cent of the possession, they were hemmed in their own half, they fell off a few tackles and had to scramble feverishly to defend their line.
Even when that slow start had been worked out of the collective system, Lancaster’s men were not as slick as they should have been after a fortnight of painstaking preparation. Too often passes were sent high or wide of their intended recipient, or simply released too soon, the re-start was a mess throughout and there were some moments of dubious decision-making, such as when Dan Cole ignored an overlap on the right, ploughed on to the line but was held up.
On the back of a robust, probing review, it is equally crucial that selection this week is approached with a critical eye and a ruthless streak. The old mantra about not changing a winning team can be dismissed as a red herring in this instance.
Expanding repertoire: Centre Manu Tuilagi bagged a brace of tries of Twickenham on Saturday
There is a case to consider several changes, with Chris Ashton available again after his one-game ban, leaving one of Saturday’s try-scoring wings, Ugo Monye and Charlie Sharples, vulnerable to a cruel cut. Sharples struck twice, very nearly had a hat-trick and was particularly dangerous and dynamic, but he — like Ashton — favours the right flank, which may count against him.
Elsewhere, Thomas Waldrom was heavily involved but not a dominant, marauding presence at No 8, so Ben Morgan should be in strong contention to replace him. Tom Wood was sufficiently prominent in the closing stages to give Lancaster cause to consider starting him ahead of Tom Johnson.
In the front row, Joe Marler went off early in the second half after suffering a back spasm and despite his forceful scrummaging contribution, Alex Corbisiero has a chance to usurp him at loosehead. Rookie lock Joe Launchbury could further reduce the cap-count by taking over from his Wasps team-mate Tom Palmer.
Lancaster indicated that he is ready to make tough calls by removing men who featured strongly in this emphatic win.
Man of the match: England full back Alex Goode (second left) started the autumn internationals in style
‘The selection philosophy will always be to pick the best side we can to win the next game,’ he said. ‘If that means players retain the shirt or other players will get opportunities, then that’s what we will do.
‘With the likes of Alex Corbisiero, Chris Ashton and Jonathan Joseph coming back into the equation, we’ve got some decisions to make leading into the Australia game.’
For now, thrusting London Irish centre Joseph straight back into the starting midfield seems an unnecessary disruption. On Saturday, Brad Barritt displayed more of his attacking qualities and Manu Tuilagi alongside him was typically effective in generating precious momentum, while also showing an improved awareness of support runners around him. There were several off-loads from the Anglo-Samoan Tiger; some effective and some on the wild side, but he is certainly expanding his repertoire.
Choices: Thomas Waldrom (centre) faces a fight to keep his place at No 8 ahead of Ben Morgan
Having shone a bright light on England’s shortcomings, it is only fair to emphasise that these were far outweighed by lots of encouraging aspects against Fiji. While the Pacific Island side were able to claim two tries, the home defence was largely rock solid, as was the set-piece work, with the scrum in total command and debutant hooker Tom Youngs’ line-out throwing in perfect working order.
Best of all, Alex Goode at full back delivered a majestic performance to enhance England’s attacking potency significantly. He popped up at various points in the line, running cleverly, using his deft footwork to good effect and sharing the playmaker’s load with Toby Flood.
Once the first-quarter problems had been rectified the hosts swept away from Fiji. Sharples cut inside and twisted through several tackles for his first strike, the home pack won a penalty try with their dominant scrum and Goode’s quick tap penalty allowed Monye to glide over on the left just before the break. In the second half, crisp handling from Goode and Chris Robshaw allowed Johnson to apply a simple finish on the right, then Sharples pounced on the opposite wing and Tuilagi punished a tiring Fiji defence with his brace late on.
Hair-raising: The unmistakable figure of Joe Marler may lose his spot in the front row to Alex Corbisiero
The fact that Manasa Saulo’s try gave the visitors a consolation and the last word in this game will be one of those issues addressed in today’s review.
England are up and running, but they must reach greater heights when the serious business starts in five days’ time.