We’ve learned how to stick to our plan, says Lancaster

England's Nick Easter, left, and Danny Cipriani afford themselves a smile as they take to the pitch during the Captain's Run at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, yesterday. The sides meet tonight to get the 2015 Six nations tournament underway (Picture: Nick Potts/PA).
England's Nick Easter, left, and Danny Cipriani afford themselves a smile as they take to the pitch during the Captain's Run at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, yesterday. The sides meet tonight to get the 2015 Six nations tournament underway (Picture: Nick Potts/PA).
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Forget the World Cup for a few weeks; the here and now presents a big enough opportunity for Stuart Lancaster and his England team to start altering perceptions.

The fourth Six Nations of the Lancaster era begins tonight in Cardiff with England harbouring a deep sense of frustration that they have yet to win the championship.

Lancaster’s reign has been characterised by a string of near-misses and what-ifs, never more sharply represented than in their three successive runner-up finishes in the Six Nations.

The most agonising of these unfolded 12 months ago when Ireland claimed the title on points difference alone, having been beaten at Twickenham.

But for a late try engineered by France in Paris, the Red Rose would have been celebrating a first grand slam since 2003.

As it was, that defeat in the French capital on the opening day of the tournament left Lancaster’s men playing catch-up, a fate that awaits them again if they surrender in Wales tonight.

The bigger picture, of course, is that a World Cup is right around the corner, with England, as hosts, expected to at least make the final of the tournament.

But these five games over the next seven weeks are of equal importance as England look to not only issue a statement of intent, but to end their quest for the Six Nations championship.

“We are frustrated that we haven’t nailed down that championship win – it does burn inside us,” confessed Lancaster.

“But you have to earn the right to stamp your authority. There are a lot of good teams out there who will have the same motivation as us.

“We’ve been close a couple of times, when maybe the bounce of the ball another way could have made a difference.

“We got to the stage where we want performances to lead to wins.

“Whatever it takes to win we’ll try to achieve it.”

The importance of tonight’s opening encounter in Cardiff cannot be understated, given how the outcome will shape the rest of the tournament for Lancaster’s men.

Victory will fill them with confidence, while defeat could be crushing to morale and leave their title aspirations hanging by a thread after just one match.

Preparations for the Millennium Stadium have been undermined by an escalating injury crisis that has accounted for seven members of the first-choice starting XV – Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Ben Morgan, Tom Wood, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi.

England’s midfield has been in a state of flux for years, but the uncertainty has only increased with Barritt, Tuilagi and Kyle Eastmond in the treatment room.

“Wales are a side stacked full of British and Irish Lions and they don’t seem to have suffered as many injuries as we have, so they have that stability,” observed Lancaster, former Leeds player, academy coach and director of rugby.

“We back ourselves to get the best out of the players we do have.

“It is a big game but, as I say, there’s five big games coming round the corner in this Six Nations.

“The priority is to get your process right, get your detail right, get the players to understand the game plan and then the game should come to us on the day.

“We’ve got to make sure we prepare well and the rest should look after itself.”

If last year’s near-miss in the Six Nations was agonising, the fate they suffered 12 months earlier was shattering.

Their trip to Wales was the fifth and final match of the series, with England needing a win to claim a first grand slam since the Clive Woodward era.

A 30-3 defeat was one of the more sobering of Lancaster’s three years in charge.

“That was an important game two years ago and it’s right that you probably learn more from your defeats than your victories,” said Lancaster, whose side gained a semblance of revenge by beating Wales 29-18 at Twickenham last March.

“It’s important that we feel confident going back to Cardiff. We have to learn the lessons from two years ago, without a doubt.

“We didn’t play well enough on the day and when it got to 17-3 at around 50 minutes, we allowed ourselves to slip into trying to solve problems on our own. In international rugby you can’t do that.

“We’ve learned the lessons about sticking to the plan and we’ve done that a lot better recently, particularly in the Australia game last autumn.

“A lot of the players who played in the 2013 game also played in the 2014 game.

“We had a good win last year at Twickenham, but Wales in Wales is different.”