It had to be you
March 30, 2012
Stuart Lancaster beams following his appointment as England's new head coach © PA Photos
The smile said it all. Stuart Lancaster beamed from ear to ear having defied the odds to reach the coaching summit. A steadying hand, a clear vision for the future of the game, a series of promising performances and wave after wave of positive headlines convinced the Rugby Football Union that he was the man to take the helm for the most important period in the history of English rugby.
It was a brave call but more importantly the right call. Nick Mallett may have been the most qualified candidate thanks to his vast and varied experience but the RFU decided correctly that his appointment - and not that of his relatively fresh-faced rival - would have been the major gamble, such is the impact Lancaster has made since being charged with lifting England out of the mire. Back slaps all round, including for the RFU suits so often accused of mismanagement, and enjoy this rare moment of unity among English rugby's powerbrokers because the smiles will not last long.
The sunshine that greeted Lancaster's appointment at Twickenham will soon be replaced by a much more intense heat in South Africa where England will take the first of 37 Test match steps between now and the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Some may say that Lancaster has already seen a bit too much sun having boldly set his sights on World Cup glory and you sense that both coach and squad are set for a rude awakening in the summer. A clash against South Africa on their own patch is a daunting prospect at the best of times but an unprecedented three-Test series is the stuff of nightmares. Arguably, there is no greater test for players or coaches such is the traditionally physical nature of South African rugby.
As great the strides the side has made on and off the field in Lancaster's relatively brief time in charge, there is little doubt that the side are set to hit a Springbok-sized bump in the road in a couple of month's time. England's second place in this year's Six Nations is worthy of significant credit and it could quite easily have been even better but in truth it was not a classic Championship in terms of the quality and intensity with the recent Rugby World Cup casting a shadow in more ways than one.
England emerged as a united and coherent force when only a few short months earlier they appeared intent on self-destruction and that will hold them in good stead on a trip that will test both mind and body. But while the foundations appear in place both on and off the pitch, question marks remain about the team's attacking prowess - with a return of seven tries in five games including a couple of charge downs - hardly the kind of cutting edge that will have the Boks worried. A pack that also appears to have found its feet will also face a step up in class against a side that will be light of one or two familiar and experienced names but not wanting in terms of brute force.
A warm-up against the Barbarians at the end of May will surely be no more than a refresher and who knows what toll the end of season run-in will take on his new-look squad. History offers little consolation. Victories over South Africa have been hard to come by of late since the end of their seven game winning streak almost six years ago. They may have tasted success in South Africa in recent memory with Jonny Wilkinson booting England to victory in Bloemfontein in 2000 but success has been the exception - not the norm. Lancaster wants his side to play without fear with the games in Durban, at altitude in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth sure to test his only recently-endorsed Test match coaching credentials and his players' confidence to the limit.
In truth, England may well be playing for scraps. Lancaster was quick to set his sights on the sport's biggest prize and he is probably more aware than anyone else that his side's quest for the World Cup begins now. Somehow, despite their failure to match Wales' performance at last year's World Cup and in the most recent battle for northern hemisphere, England find themselves in 4th place in the current IRB rankings. The importance of that position cannot be underestimated with the team occupying that slot come the end of the autumn internationals set to avoid the top three - currently Australia, New Zealand and South Africa - in the pool draw for the 2015 Rugby World Cup. You could argue that such a fate did not serve England that well at the last tournament but as hosts they will want to leverage every possible advantage in their quest for World Cup crown.
Whether they will be in the same position come draw time will rest nearly entirely on their ability to upset the rankings in June and again in November when all three southern hemisphere giants, along with Fiji, will visit Twickenham. A victory in South Africa, no matter how ugly, may give them priceless breathing room with Wales looking to use Australia as a springboard up the rankings as part of a welcome return of an extended tours calendar.
France's visit to the lesser-ranked Argentina may not provide them with the required momentum while Ireland's challenge looks the greatest with the World Cup-winning All Blacks awaiting their visit. However, given the embryonic stage of his squad he may quietly accept the odd indicator that his side remain on course for the big one.
His players have already shown an impressive ability to bounce back from defeat having succumbed to Wales before putting France and Ireland to the sword and that resolve is in for a further battering. The all-important rankings suggest that Lancaster may well be reflecting on a worrying run of results come the end of the year by which time the smile may well be a little more forced.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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