Warren Gatland and his team were on full ‘mind games’ mode last week in the build up to the opening 6 Nations fixture against England. They have past form for these tactics. In 2009 Gatland stoked the fire before the Ireland game by stating that “”Probably, out of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike the Irish the most”. The outcome? A Welsh home defeat.
This time Gatland sent out his lieutenant Sean Edwards to remind the referee (and anyone else who was listening) that England run rugby league style blocking lines in their attacking plays. Gatland himself them waded in by laying down the gauntlet to Lancaster to “accept the challenge” of playing with the Millennium Stadium roof closed. Finally we had the farcical face-off in the tunnel (read The Day Larry King came to the Millennium Stadium).
The outcome? A Welsh home defeat.
Stuart Lancaster didn’t feel the need to gloat in his post-match comments but there must have been a deep sense of satisfaction in the victory given the somewhat fractious build up to the match. The victory was made all the sweeter due to the huge injury list he had to contend with. These are some of the players missing for last weekend’s fixture: Geoff Parling, Owen Farrell, Kyle Eastmond, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan, Ben Foden, Manu Tuilagi, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Joe Launchbury and Ed Slater.
What is pretty clear is that England are slowly developing huge strength in depth and could conceivably put out 40 players of international standard. Lancaster has been forced to give some players a chance in the first team which has helped to develop this depth of talent but the elite English club teams seem to have put in place a structure to identify and develop young talent which is bearing fruit.
The English coach has a problem though; you don’t need 40 international standard players to be a credible contender for the Rugby World Cup, you need around 25 with approximately 10 world class individuals amongst that group.
Over the last 10 competitive England matches Lancaster has used 45 different players in his match day squad which is roughly equivalent to the same measure for the Welsh selections under Warren Gatland in the same period. The difference though is that Wales has a settled first 15 with only minor changes made to the replacements from match to match. Lancaster has a dilemma though – too many options.
To be a contender for the World Cup, history tells us that a stable team is needed which has played together as a unit as many times as possible. By the time the 2011 World Cup came around the New Zealand team pretty much choose itself. Jane, Conrad Smith, Nonu, Carter, Weepu, Read, McCaw, Kaino, Whitelock, Thorn, Woodcock, Mealamu and Franks were consistent names on the team sheet in the build up to the World Cup and through the tournament.
Lancaster is only 7 games away from the start of the 2015 World Cup so the time to pick a settled team is now – even if that means players coming back from injury are not afforded the same opportunities as those that are currently fit and playing. The time for trying players and testing combinations is now coming to an end and the spine of the team to take England to the World Cup needs to be decided if England are going to be credible contenders. This may mean time has already run out for the likes of Parling, Morgan, Foden and Launchbury.
In the next article theblitzdefence will look at who will make the England first team and squad.