State of the Nation - Nick Westby: Lancaster remains on course to reach peak for World Cup

England coach Stuart Lancaster

England coach Stuart Lancaster

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Judging a team midway through a World Cup cycle can never be conclusive.

Too much can be read into isolated results, be they hard-fought victories over Australia in November or a catastrophic collapse in Cardiff in March.

It is better to gauge progression on entire series or championships. England finished second in the 2013 Six Nations after winning their opening four games and then surrendering meekly to Wales in Cardiff.

Stuart Lancaster, left, then took a team weakened by Lions call-ups to Argentina where they won both games.

In November, they won two of three Tests against the southern hemisphere, putting in arguably their best performance in their only defeat – though there is no shame in losing to New Zealand. Conclusion? England remain a work in progress. They have shown they have the ability to win games in different ways, and are a match for any of the big three.

Twickenham is becoming a fortress again, a venue opponents fear, which should give England a psychological edge given all but one of their World Cup games will be played at headquarters.

On the flip side, injuries have taken their toll on Lancaster’s selection, and already ahead of the penultimate Six Nations’ before the 2015 World Cup he is bereft of key man all over the pitch.

But therein lies the main ingredient on which England’s progress under Lancaster should be measured – squad depth.

Much more than individual results at this juncture, it is the Test- match experience he is giving to young players like Joe Launchbury and Billy Vunipola that will see them at their strongest come October, November 2015.

In each fixture, Lancaster names a team that is significantly outweighed by their opponents in terms of caps; the notable examples of that being the two defeats this year, at the hands of the vastly-experienced Welsh and the long-established All Blacks, who had half a squad over 30.

But Lancaster is building a squad to peak for 2015; one hardened by heartaches, driven by disappointments and encouraged by enormous wins.

There is no point peaking in 2013. All credit to New Zealand for the year they have had, but haven’t we seen this mid-cycle dominance from the All Blacks before?

When he took the job two years ago, Lancaster highlighted 2014 as the year to begin fine-tuning selections, partnerships and a cohesive game-plan. Injuries might prevent that being established by the end of the year.

But with a Six Nations’ title to be won, a three-match tour of New Zealand in the summer and the All Blacks, Wallabies and South Africa in London at the end of the year, 2014 will give union fans the clearest indication yet as to just how close Lancaster’s England are to fulfilling their World Cup destiny.

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