State of the Nation: Time for Lancaster to come good on his planning

England coach Stuart Lancaster.
England coach Stuart Lancaster.
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Twelve games to write themselves into history. A dozen 80-minute battles in which they can etch their name for all time on the English sporting psyche.

This is the opportunity presenting itself to Stuart Lancaster and his national team in 2015.

Five games of the Six Nations this Spring, and then, with a fair wind at their backs, seven games in the autumn at the World Cup.

If they manage only four 
fixtures at the eighth global gathering, then Lancaster will be back in his Leeds home on a permanent basis.

For this is year four of the Lancaster master plan; the year of delivering on the sporadic signs of promise over the last three campaigns.

This final sprint to the World Cup was supposed to be all about fine-tuning patterns and partnerships, but a horrendous injury list allied with too many near-misses against the game’s powerful forces have left Lancaster with more problems than solutions.

For example: is George Ford mature enough to step in and own the No 10 shirt?

Is Steffon Armitage not good enough to relax the rules concerning where a player plays his club rugby?

Can rugby league superstar Sam Burgess learn the inside centre position, adapt it on a match day and deliver on the biggest stage in less than a year?

Lancaster has just eight games to find those answers and more; three warm-up games in late summer, and five duels with their annual foes in the Six Nations.

That competition on its own deserves to be more than just a marker for the year ahead.

England have not won a grand slam for 12 years, despite winning four of five matches in each of the last four seasons.

Ireland won the Six Nations last year after England were left playing catch-up following another close defeat, this time to France, on the opening weekend.

And Ireland go into this season’s tournament as firm favourites and the one northern hemisphere nation who, at present, can hold their own on a regular basis against the southern hemisphere heavyweights.

An opening night in Cardiff – scene of their grand slam collapse two years ago – will be a big test of England’s mettle, the kind they can expect at every turn in 2015.

A clean sweep of their European foes would set Lancaster’s men up perfectly, whereas another ‘what if’ scenario would only increase the heat on the national team’s head coach.

There can be no doubting the Red Rose have made huge strides on and off the field under Lancaster. Only injuries, and the right decision here and there from his players, have held back his team.

But excuses aside, nothing short of an appearance in the World Cup final at Twickenham on October 31 will do.