Brian Moore fears England’s preparations for next year’s World Cup are being seriously undermined by the recent spate of injuries.
A weakened team host world champions New Zealand today at the start of a four-week block of fixtures that Moore describes as more challenging than any they could potentially face at next year’s tournament.
Although the hard-nosed former hooker thinks England head coach Stuart Lancaster can not hide behind the injuries, he does have empathy for the man tasked with building a squad capable of winning the Webb Ellis trophy for a second time.
Injuries are part and parcel of a high-impact professional sport but England can feel particularly hard done to.
For this series alone they are without Geoff Parling, Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Ed Slater, Tom Croft and Manu Tuilagi.
With less than a year to go and just nine competitive matches remaining, Lancaster had hoped to be in the fine-tuning phase of his preparations for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
But with so many new caps being blooded this week and in further matches against South Africa and Australia this month, Moore is worried that Lancaster is not being given chance to try out partnerships in key areas.
“The difficulty for Lancaster is this; he’s got nine games only in which to get a settled partnership at centre and a settled back three and at every turn he’s been unable to,” said Moore, who was capped 64 times between 1987 and 1995.
“Before the season, the only centre partnership that had not been tried was Tuilagi and Luther Burrell and neither of them are available now and there’s nothing you can do about that.
“That puts a lot of pressure on because at some point Lancaster is going to have to say ‘these are my two centres and this is my back three and they’re all going to have to play together, I’m sorry that’s it’.
“If you’re chopping and changing going into a World Cup then you’re almost done in my opinion.
“Imagine if everyone else is fit for the other teams, you’ll be playing against (New Zealand pair) Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, who have over 80 games together.
“It affects the whole back line. It doesn’t matter how good the players are, if they’re not familiar with each other then they are not going to perform as well as if they are.
“Lancaster – and this is not his fault – just hasn’t had the centres there that I strongly believe he would have wanted to get into partnerships.”
Injuries to players in the front five, like Corbisiero and Launchbury, also pose problems because of the strain that is putting on the players coming in.
Moore added: “The way the game is played nowadays, people are told you’ve got 55, 60 minutes and I want you to go all out then we’ll put someone else on.
“You can’t do that if you haven’t got the cover. And you can’t rest people for games or rotate them, it’s much more difficult.
“England have a lot of injuries at the minute and are going to find it hard just to get through these games.
“In the end, all teams have injury problems and they can’t use that as an excuse, but I would say when you’re looking back at how they’ve done this autumn you would have to take that into account without using it as an excuse.”
The series comes at such a juncture in the World Cup cycle that opinion is split as to which is the most pivotal game of the QBE series.
Richard Hill yesterday said he believed today’s game with the All Blacks is the most important, while Will Greenwood, in these pages three weeks ago, said it was next week’s opponents South Africa because they are the only team Lancaster’s England have not beaten.
For Moore, the most crucial game is the last one – against next year’s World Cup group phase opponents Australia.
“Minimum there needs to be two wins, one of which has to be Australia and it’s very important that they put a psychological marker down,” said Moore, with England also playing Samoa on the penultimate Saturday.
“When they come to play next year it’s nice to know that we’ve beaten them on our own patch.
“If they can beat any of the other big two, New Zealand or South Africa, then that would be a bonus, and for me that’s realistic.”
Given the injuries, Moore believes England cannot be judged too harshly on the evidence of these next four fixtures, barring a heavy defeat that would flag up serious concerns.
But when evaluating the impact of Lancaster, who like Halifax-raised Moore is an adopted Yorkshireman, the veteran believes the head coach has been a driving force in helping England regain respect in world rugby.
“When something goes well, the tendency is for people to look back and assume it was always going to go well,” said Moore, who was speaking to publicise his new book, What Goes On Tour, Stays on Tour, which was released this week.
“What you have to do when you’re assessing something correctly is you have to go back and look at the situation as it was when they were appointed.
“I go back and look at press cuttings and you would see people writing things like ‘English rugby in the gutter’, ‘this is a poisoned chalice’, ‘never been at a lower ebb’.
“Now they may have been hyped for journalistic purposes, but that was the sentiment.
“Now look at how they are being talked about; as a professional team, one the All Blacks respect enormously, and you are in a situation where if they can get a centre partnership and a back three, they won’t be favourites, but they have a chance at winning a World Cup.
“In 2011, they were nowhere near the pace. That won’t be the case this time. Lancaster, therefore, must get that credit.”
What Goes on Tour Stays on Tour by Brian Moore (published by Simon and Schuster, hardback priced £18.99).