England in mood to learn from past mistakes

England's Tom Palmer
England's Tom Palmer
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Nearly four months have passed since England’s players trudged despondently off the field in Auckland after their insipid World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of France.

In that time players and coaches have come and gone and the Rugby Football Union’s dirty linen has been aired in public.

England were in need of an image overhaul and the renovator has been Stuart Lancaster.

The former Leeds player and coach, and Wakefield schoolteacher, has led from the front since taking office as interim head coach in December.

England are likeable again. There is fresh optimism in the air.

A successful week-long training camp in Yorkshire – when they reconnected with the public and sat through enlightening talks from their sporting peers – further healed the wounds left from that damaging World Cup campaign.

The recent indiscretions of Danny Care and Delon Armitage suggest old habits die hard for some.

But in banishing those players instantly, Lancaster left the team and the public under no illusions that such negative headlines will not be tolerated.

It is a case of so far, so good in the resurrection of England’s rugby team.

The final proof, as the saying goes, will be in the pudding. Or for Lancaster and his team, in the performance, starting on Saturday at Murrayfield against England’s oldest and fiercest rivals, Scotland.

If England are to be successful, each and every one of Lancaster’s players needs to have bought into his culture and his game plan.

There can be no baggage from New Zealand.

And encouragingly for England fans, one of the few shining lights of the World Cup campaign – Tom Palmer – believes there should be no fears that those clouds of controversy will return to engulf them during the Six Nations.

“That’s all been put behind us now,” insisted the former Leeds player who is a strong candidate to start in the second row at Murrayfield.

“It’s something that happened and about half of this new group weren’t even involved in that.

“And for the guys that were involved they’ve certainly put it behind them. I know I have.

“That’s the good thing about rugby, you separate international from club rugby. When you’re at your club you concentrate solely on that. It’s the same here; once you leave your club you concentrate solely on international matters and you’re back in England mode.

“The World Cup seems a lifetime away.”

Even though England failed at the World Cup – struggling to four pool wins before their last-eight exit – they are still defending champions in this year’s Six Nations. They were one good performance away from a grand slam last year, something Palmer feels has been forgotten in all the negative headlines.

He said: “Okay, we didn’t play too well in New Zealand, but if you look back over the last 12-18 months as a whole we’ve played some pretty good stuff.

“We’d probably begun to tail off – our best form was this time last year, the first two or three matches of the Six Nations – so we didn’t get our timing right for the World Cup.

“But there are a lot of new players in the side, a new coaching system in place, so we are starting a little bit from scratch with new ideas we are working towards.

“There are also a lot of experienced guys in the side so it’s not like it’s a team of kids coming in.

“I think we’ll do pretty well.”

England’s week in Leeds was about rebuidling a culture, with training sessions held in front of Yorkshire schoolchildren and the likes of rugby league stars Jamie Peacock and Kevin Sinfield imparting their thoughts on the duty of care of an England representative.

Armitage’s expulsion aside, they are lessons that are being heeded.

Palmer said: “It was good to get a perspective from other people at the heart of success. It’s good to get that insight, how they formed their successful teams, how they got their cultural change. Particularly Leeds Rhinos who went from underachieving to being the dominant side in Super League. And the England cricket team that climbed from fifth to first.

“We’ve had meetings, discussions about what we want to do, what we want to be known as and how the culture should be.

“There’ll be a change of culture naturally, purely because of the amount of changes there’s been to the group.

“The culture you have depends so much on the characters you have in the group, and the personalities.

“When new players come in a new culture will naturally evolve and we just have to make sure that what evolves enables us to learn from the mistakes of the past and we can all be on our best behaviour and take that forward.”

Palmer was at Leeds at the same time as Lancaster, though their paths rarely crossed.

The University of Leeds graduate was a first-team stalwart during Lancaster’s spell with the club’s academy.

But this is the first time he has worked properly under England’s interim head coach.

Palmer, who made 188 appearances for Leeds, said: “I’ve been hugely impressed by him. He seems like he’s been doing the job a long time. Even though this is his first international job it seems like he’s a hugely experienced international coach.

“His presentation skills are fantastic, he keeps things simple, short and sharp, he’s got very good empathy with the players.

“I think he’s a very good coach and we’ll see how good he is now he’s been given this opportunity.

“The players have responded to what he’s been saying and asking us to do and hopefully that will lead to success for the side and rewards for Stuart.

“The players have been really positive with everything he’s brought to them so far.”

The small matter of translating those lessons onto the pitch is next on the agenda.

Scotland and Italy may be the weakest teams on paper, but successive weekends in Edinburgh and Rome will not be for the faint-hearted and will determine what path England go down.

“It’s always harder playing away from home but is something we should handle,” said Palmer.

“All international matches offer different challenges. Murrayfield is hostile, but it’s the same as playing in Cardiff or Dublin; there are no easy places to go.”

O’Driscoll injury gives Earls his chance to shine

Keith Earls has been chosen to replace Brian O’Driscoll when Ireland meet Wales in their RBS Six Nations opener at Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

O’Driscoll has been ruled out of the entire championship after undergoing shoulder surgery, leaving a void in the position he has filled with such distinction since 1999.

The task of filling some of the biggest boots in world rugby has fallen to Earls, the Munster and Lions back who has scored 11 tries in 26 Test appearances.

Earls has played at outside centre for his province in recent weeks and head coach Declan Kidney felt he was the leading candidate to replace O’Driscoll.

“Keith trained really well last week and it was on that basis that we made the decision,” said Kidney.

“He’s looking forward to it and obviously has played very well there for Munster.”

Andrew Trimble of Ulster has been selected on the left wing with Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray the preferred half-backs.

Sexton has edged out the more experienced Ronan O’Gara, who must settle for a spot among the replacements.

In total there are only three changes, one positional, to the side defeated 22-10 by Wales in last autumn’s World Cup quarter-final.

The pack is identical to the eight that suffered heartache in Wellington with Donncha O’Callaghan holding off the challenge of Donnacha Ryan in the second row.

The only Test debutant in the 22 is Munster back row Peter O’Mahony, who features on the bench.

Wales are continuing to play a waiting game with their injured players.

But another name has been added to the confirmed list of absentees after hooker and former Wales captain Matthew Rees suffered a calf strain during training.

Rees is set to be sidelined for two weeks, which would also mean him missing the Millennium Stadium appointment with Scotland on Sunday week. Rees, 31, had been in a battle for the No 2 shirt with Huw Bennett, although Bennett was already expected to start in Dublin and win his 50th cap.