Time offers Lancaster chance to produce settled England line-up

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A YEAR ago, Stuart Lancaster could never have sat in the West Park Leeds clubhouse readily envisaging masterminding a record-breaking win over world champions New Zealand.

Back then, he was in the infancy of his tenure as England’s head coach, naming a hugely revamped and inexperienced squad in an attempt to help rid the Red Rose of a stubborn stain left by a grimy World Cup debacle.

Fifteen of that 2011 party were axed, eventually replaced with 17 new caps and Lancaster brought them all to train in Yorkshire rather than Portugal for a stark dose of reality.

Earlier this week, though, he could return to his local club and afford a well-deserved smile as he unveiled his latest elite player squad.

That there were few significant changes says plenty about the progress the ex-Leeds Carnegie coach has made in the interim, firstly with his impression in the Six Nations to get the gig on a permanent basis, but notably that stunning 38-21 triumph over the revered All Blacks in December.

“So many things have happened in a year but it is interesting to sit here a year on and remember where we were as a group,” admitted Lancaster, as he turns his thinking to the 2013 Six Nations which opens next month.

“We made 15 changes this time last year. It wasn’t just the 15 changes, it was the significance of the number of caps that were left in the side at the time.”

That was very few but Lancaster has blooded a raft of talented youngsters through the autumn and, such are the dividends, sees little need for further revolution now.

In his eyes, the 33-man squad announced in the week should form the backbone of not only the forthcoming Six Nations tournament but the 2015 World Cup too.

Those that prospered so vividly against New Zealand are likely to get the nod against Scotland in the Twickenham opener on February 2 but Lancaster – whose squad will return to West Park Leeds for preparations at the end of the month – maintained that is not due to any sense of loyalty.

“It’s not a matter of us owing a debt of honour to the people who played in that victory,” he insisted.

“If you make selection predictable, you get complacency among those in the team and frustration among those outside it.

“At some point during the training camp the players will be going hard at each other, 15 against 15, and it may be that we, as coaches, will look at someone performing particularly well and say ‘Hey, you know what...?

“But it is also that a team needs consistency in selection.”

The latter point is particularly pertinent; Lancaster’s assistant Andy Farrell reminded everyone that it was only in that New Zealand fixture, the last of their four autumn internationals, that all the coaching staff’s teachings finally sunk in and came to fruition at once.

They only have a finite time with the players at their disposal and, so, there can be no room for frequent chopping and changing if England are to evolve into a side with the marked consistency of the All Blacks.

Regardless, whoever takes to the field, Lancaster knows his team have to build on that historic result immediately and there can be no relaxation at the prospect of facing mired opponents who are in disarray after the departure of their own chief Andy Robinson.

Scott Johnson is their interim coach, charged with avoiding an embarrassing whitewash like in last year’s competition, with ex-England player Dean Ryan on board as his temporary forwards coach.

Lancaster admitted: “They’ve got a new coaching team with an interim boss and we all know what effect that can have on a side.

“They’ve got a forwards coach too who I’m sure will be motivating them so there’ll be nothing taken for granted.

“I think on average there’s only been four points between England and Scotland in our games for the last four or five years.

“It’s one for us where we just hit the ground running in the Leeds camp and build on that (New Zealand) performance.

“Our mindset was always strong throughout all the autumn internationals.

“I think what we got right in the All Black game which we didn’t in the others was the accuracy.

“I’ll be very disappointed if we have to work on getting the players’ mindset right to play for England against Scotland. It’s the Calcutta Cup.

“What we’ve got to make sure we get right is the accuracy in how we deliver.”

Of the changes that did have to be made – seven in total, some enforced – Lancaster concedes there were some “tough” conversations with the likes of former Leeds lock Tom Palmer and fellow forwards Mouritz Botha and Phil Dowson.

But he regularly refers to his mantra that “at a stalemate we need players who can make a difference” and those such as ex-Rotherham Titains winger Dave Strettle, Gloucester tyros Freddie Burns and Billy Twelvetrees, plus dynamic No 8 Billy Vunipola are seen as just those sort of game-changers.

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk

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