Saturday night saw a battered, bruised but exceptionally resilient Welsh side fight back from the jaws of defeat to ruin England’s Rugby World Cup party. Granted, England are not out of this World Cup and there is still plenty of grueling rugby to be played, however the impact of Saturday’s loss will be substantial.
In January of 2012, a fresh-faced and stern Stuart Lancaster took control of the wreckage that was the England rugby team in the aftermath of a harrowing World Cup campaign in New Zealand. From jumping off ferries to episodes involving dwarfs, it was safe to say that the players and management had lost sight of the end goal: winning a World Cup. Come January 2012 however and England were preaching the importance of experience and building a ‘super-squad’, capable of sweeping all before them with 2015 and beyond in mind. Expectations were low for the 2012 Six Nations campaign, after all, building such a brilliant squad would take time. However England played well and proceeded to only lose one game, one which they should have won against Wales were it not for a late Scott Williams try.
Creating a timeline of Lancaster’s reign up until the present day would make for rather prolonged, and strenuous, reading. The question must nonetheless be asked: where is this ‘super squad’? England’s emphatic victory against New Zealand in December 2012 was marvelous, but the stars of that particular show such as Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi are nowhere to be seen (albeit for differing reasons). The home victory against Ireland in the 2014 Six Nations was a hard-fought and gripping encounter, recent wins against Australia in the Autumn Internationals were impressive, the away win in Wales earlier this year was extremely exciting to watch.
Yet, despite a few strong performances here and there, England have ultimately failed to install a consistency of selection, 80 minute performances and subsequently results. In the 2013 Six Nations, England collapsed in Cardiff, a year later they lost late to a moment of magic from the Frenchman Gaël Fickou and earlier this year they were outsmarted by Joe Schmidt’s Irish side. Added to this has been a disappointing whitewash in New Zealand and a string of painful defeats by the South Africans. Quite simply, England have not materialised into the world-beaters they would supposedly become.
That is not to say England’s squad lack quality, this group is certainly capable of competing at the highest level. Furthermore, Lancaster and his small team of coaches have created a substantial amount of depth over this four year interval, one only has to look at the exclusion of the mercurial Danny Cipriani from the World Cup squad to see that England’s squad certainly does not lack in numbers of capable players.
Ultimately though, the only recognition that England can show for their efforts has been the Triple Crown in 2014, earned when beating the other home nations- Scotland, Wales and Ireland. In March of 2012, Lancaster spoke of instilling an “intuitive sense of what they are going to do under pressure” in his side, combining that with the ever-clichéd ‘experience’ that must be pumping through the ice-cold veins of his side. Saturday’s loss to Wales showed neither. Yes, if England’s drive from the lineout two minutes from time had resulted in a try, we may not be having this conversation. However just to let an injury-plagued and otherwise disjointed Welsh team back into the lead having dominated for 65 minutes of the 80, is disappointing. It showed a lack of all the necessary ingredients for a world-beating side. Sir Clive Woodward would have been no doubt quick to point out that his World Cup winning side would have never have let that lead even remotely slip.
Twickenham is not the fortress it was set to be, let alone the one it was in the early noughties. England will face Australia this Saturday in a match where only a convincing win will suffice. Should they achieve that goal, momentum is such a powerful tool in sport that that chariot may well carry them deep into the crunch time of knockout rugby. Only then will we be able to see the true colours of this long-awaited English side.