A YEAR ago this weekend, Stuart Lancaster’s new England team took their first defiant steps “out of the gutter” with a victory over Scotland at Murrayfield.
Today, England tackle the auld enemy for the Calcutta Cup once again but now their sights are trained on the stars, having beaten world champions New Zealand at the start of December.
Phase one of England’s rebuilding plan is complete. The foundations of Lancaster’s team have been laid, the identity of the team forged in the furnace of Test rugby.
England finished 2012 with a record of six wins, five defeats and a draw but the progress from the wreckage of the 2011 Rugby World Cup was clear.
The challenge which begins for England today is to build on those foundations. The long-term goal is to be ranked in the top two by the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
“I am pleased how the last year has gone but I want more,” said assistant coach Graham Rowntree.
“We have a settled coaching group, a core of players and a core leadership group. What has pleased me most is the players we have blooded in key positions.
“We have developed that over the past year. We have got a good culture and one of our bedrock statements is we have to be hard to beat.
“We will challenge teams in every area of the field. We have built on that but we are nowhere near where we can be. No-one knows that more than us.
“We did beat the world champions but we stripped that performance down: so many areas were good and so many areas we have got to improve on.
“We know where we are in terms of our group, our experience and what we have to get better at. That’s what drives us on, that (quest for) perfection.”
It was Rowntree who credited Lancaster with dragging English rugby out of the gutter in March and the Rugby Football Union soon agreed, installing him as permanent head coach.
Lancaster’s rise through the ranks of the RFU has been rapid. Two years ago he applied for the role of performance director, which was scrapped in a managerial meltdown at Twickenham. But the latest reshuffle instituted this week has seen Lancaster placed in charge of all elite rugby, a role which encompasses both the head coach and performance director duties.
“It was never my intention two years ago to get the England head coach job. That is not the way I thought,” said Lancaster. “Last year I was the interim coach. There’s a different feel this year. Expectations have risen and this time last year people were looking at us as an unknown force. Now they know. The trick is to win consistently, even when you are the target. That is what the All Blacks do.
“That is what we have to strive towards. We have to be one step ahead, not one step behind,” he added.
Scotland have not won at Twickenham in 30 years and they head south on the back of a defeat to Tonga which cost Andy Robinson his job as head coach.
That only serves to heighten the expectation on England, but Rowntree, angered by accusations of arrogance aimed at his team, insisted there is no danger of complacency. England have won the last three fixtures, but the margin has not been bigger than a converted try.
“There is nothing more daunting to me than a team coming here with nothing to lose,” said Rowntree.
n Six Nations preview: Pages 6-7.