Stuart Lancaster last night defended his decision to keep faith with Owen Farrell for a game with Samoa on Saturday that has grown in significance.
At first glance the visit of the Pacific islanders on the third of four Saturdays this month was the one banker home win England could be certain of.
Lancaster’s men would be judged on how they fared against New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, and after losing the first two of those to the southern hemisphere heavyweights, the judgment has been harsh.
The critics have rounded on the merits of Lancaster’s long-term vision, cast doubt on England’s chances of winning next year’s World Cup on home soil and questioned the form and potential of some of the players that have been constants in the former Leeds coach’s reign.
Chris Robshaw has come under attack for his qualities as an openside flanker and as captain, while Farrell’s loss of form has come under the closest scrutiny.
The 23-year-old’s inability to get England up and running has been highlighted, especially when measured against the calibre of No 10s England have lost to in the opening two weekends of the QBE series; New Zealand’s Aaron Cruden and South Africa’s Pat Lambie.
But Lancaster has kept faith with a man he gave a debut to in his own first game in charge, moving Farrell out of the firing line to inside centre and introducing George Ford into the fly-half role, for the 21-year-old’s first international start.
Lancaster even had to go as far as insisting he is willing to drop Farrell if he considers it the correct decision and issued an emphatic retort to speculation that the presence of Owen’s father Andy in England’s coaching team sways his thinking.
“If there’s a perception that I’ve never dropped Owen Farrell, then that’s wrong,” said Lancaster.
“He was dropped in South Africa when we were on tour and he didn’t play in any of the autumn internationals in 2012 in the lead up to that New Zealand game.”
When questioned about the role Andy Farrell has in the selection, Lancaster replied: “Can I put that one to bed, please?
“I can categorically say that there is no influence of Andy in the selection of Owen whatsoever. I make the decision. I consult (attacking skills coach) Mike Catt more than Andy when it comes to Owen. Mike has his view but I make the decision on it. Andy has a view, but to suggest that he in anyway would influence selection is completely wrong.
“In terms of questioning the integrity of them as a father and son unit in their family, I think that would be completely wrong.
“If you ask the players, they will say it is a completely coach-player relationship. I’ve seen Mike Ford and George Ford operate in the same relationship.
“I’ve got a son who’s 13, I coach him and if you ask anyone you are probably harder on your own children.”
Lancaster added: “I don’t think Owen was to blame for either performance really.
“Overall, collectively, we didn’t get the wins that we hoped. We weren’t a million miles away but we didn’t get them.”
Farrell and Ford played together for England at age group level and helped the under-20s reach the final of the 2011 Junior World Championship.
And while Lancaster expects Farrell to offer Ford support, he has encouraged the Bath man to “take the lead” in his first start.
“It’s a partnership we’ve wanted to look at. We looked in Italy at the end of the Six Nations from the bench,” he said. “Owen’s a great communicator, a great leader, a great option for us and also support for George.
“It’s a big step for George to come into this environment and this team but equally it’s about George taking control and running the ship the way he wants to run it.
“He’s a confident player. Having been in camp for two-and-a-half weeks now I think he’s ready to take the lead role and I’m sure he’ll do it well.”
Ford’s inclusion is one of six changes made by Lancaster, who in other areas has not shown such mercy, notably his decision to drop Leeds-born scrum-half Danny Care who started both the first two Tests of the autumn series.
Ben Youngs comes in for the axed Care with Saracens’ in-form No 9 Richard Wigglesworth promoted to the bench.
Lancaster has overhauled his back row with James Haskell replacing Tom Wood at blindside flanker and Ben Morgan in from the bench to start at No 8. Captain Robshaw is the only survivor in that department.
Wood must settle for a substitute’s role against Samoa and the final change sees hooker Rob Webber swap roles with Dylan Hartley, who drops to the bench after receiving a senseless yellow card against the Springboks.
England will be heavy favourites against Samoa as they look to snap a five-game losing streak.
All those games have been against the top two in the world, four against the world champion All Blacks and last week’s outing against South Africa.
“Every game is a must-win and certainly for us now this Samoa game is in the lead up to that Australia game,” said Lancaster.
“There’s every chance that if a positive performance comes around, the side will continue to evolve into that Australia game.”