England v Uruguay: North should be grateful as Lancaster makes last stand

England head coach Stuart Lancaster watches his players, during the captain's run at the City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster watches his players, during the captain's run at the City of Manchester Stadium, Manchester.
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England versus Uruguay was never the easiest of sells in the first place.

A host nation against the lowest-ranked team in the competition in the final pool match; even for the eternally optimistic, the most that would be riding on it would be England’s pursuit of tries and a bonus point.

It could also have been a game in which the stars were rested with the bigger test of the knockout rounds lying in wait.

Alas, it is none of the above. Tonight’s encounter at the home of Manchester City Football Club is the deadest of rubbers, a game that will result in the most comfortable and hollow of victories for the battered hosts.

Since Saturday’s soul-crushing defeat to Australia, when England’s limitations were laid bare against a nation with genuine claims on winning the World Cup, the inquests and infighting have begun.

Andy Farrell’s influence on team selection, Danny Cipriani versus Mike Catt on the training paddock, Sam Burgess’s future (why always him?), who will replace the embattered head coach – all topics on which the wolves have feasted.

Through it all, Stuart Lancaster has stayed stoic.

Sunday morning’s press conference as he sat with Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie was particularly uncomfortable, with his employer refusing to back him and the inquisitors eager to ruffle him.

But Lancaster has remained calm, dignified even. The message on his future is it will be decided after England’s Rugby World Cup campaign ends and if it is left to the head coach to choose, the decision will be based on three pillars: “accountability, responsibility and family”.

He has also attempted to pay due deference to today’s fixture. While he knows the anticipated win in a mis-match of resources and tradition will not cure the ills of the past two Saturdays or hide the shame of their historic exit, it is a Test match nonetheless, and fans have paid good money – excellent money in some cases – to go and watch it.

It is also a significant fixture for the sport in the north, given how infrequently the national team venture out of their twin comfort zones of Twickenham and Pennyhill Park.

For the record, this is just the fourth time England have played a game in the north since 1923. Ninety-two years. The last was against Argentina at Old Trafford in 2009. Eleven years earlier, Huddersfield hosted two of England’s World Cup qualifiers, against Italy and the Netherlands.

History may well consign tonight’s fixture to being equally forgetable, but if Lancaster does decide that the accountability rests with him – or the RFU take the decision out of his hands and find a successor with Nick Mallett already being linked – then the sport in the north should lament the loss of a true standard- bearer.

For one of Lancaster’s greatest successes has been how he has reconnected the England squad with the entire country.

The culture shift he oversaw in his first few months in the job is well-documented. But what is perhaps forgotten is that Lancaster took the England of Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs and James Haskell out of their padded cell in Surrey, and onto the road.

Three times he held week-long training camps in Leeds; welcoming schoolchildren to watch their heroes train and inviting players out into the community to give clinics and talks.

“It is a shame we didn’t have more opportunities to take the team to train in different parts of the country,” he said this week.

Tonight’s occasion represents an opportunity for fans and the governing body alike to embrace the notion of England playing in the north.

On the pitch, the 80 minutes of rugby may be an irrelevance in the wider picture of the World Cup narrative, but, after spending the last two weeks confessing to have let the nation down, England’s players rneed to put in a committed, ruthless performance that at least begins the healing process.

“If there is one thing I’m determined to do this week, it’s to finish with everything intact,” said Lancaster, who has maintained all week that he wants his team to leave a “good last impression”.

Already the second-guessing of who is successor – if there is to be one – will be, with former Springboks chief Mallett saying yesterday that he has been approached by the RFU, something the governing body denies. “That’s just the nature of the situation we are in. For me it’s a case of getting on with the day job,” said Lancaster.

It may also be Lancaster’s last stand, and for that alone, there is relevance in tonight’s encounter.

Meanwhile, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree have received changing-room bans for tonight’s game after breaching protocols governing communication with match officials during half-time of the 33-13 tournament-ending rout by Australia at Twickenham.