DCSIMG

Honeymoon period well and truly over for England boss Lancaster

LEGENDARY STATUS - Paul Grayson has left Saints after 19 years at the club as player and coach

LEGENDARY STATUS - Paul Grayson has left Saints after 19 years at the club as player and coach

 

If the last 10 months have been a honeymoon period for Stuart Lancaster, then that romance came to a very abrupt end at Twickenham on Saturday with what was without doubt the most disappointing performance under his reign.

It is a big blow and a big step backwards.

England have taken big strides forwards in the last year but this was without question a step in the wrong direction.

To point the finger at England’s naivety in spurning penalty kicks at goal in the second half is a red herring for me, when looking at the game in context, you would do well to note that for 60 minutes they were largely ineffective as an attacking threat.

Granted things could have been different had they taken their penalty shots, but I think it’s much more relevant to look at their overall performance.

Had they sneaked a win with those penalties then it would only have papered over the cracks of what was largely poor performance.

It was almost like I was watching an England team from 12 months ago, ponderous, slow, lacking options and dynamism, it was really disappointing.

I didn’t expect huge fireworks from England, but I did expect some grunt, power and go-forward in attack.

The first half was awful, England made it easy for the Wallabies, they were predictable, took the ball standing still in attack and failed to make single line break, which in turn stopped them from offloading and getting in behind what I felt was a potentially vulnerable Australia.

I still do not believe that England have the balance of their team right, the back row is a problem.

We really do need to look at a more traditional balance with an out-and-out openside.

We are being punished by not having one.

It tells you all you need to know that Michael Hooper, the relatively unknown Aussie openside was named man of the match; he was everywhere, an absolute menace.

Just when England thought they might get the upper hand at the breakdown with David Pocock’s absence, Hooper was free to dictate terms to them.

I stated a few weeks ago that England captain Chris Robshaw could come under some pressure and I think he is about to.

There are so many things to admire about Robshaw, his work-rate, attitude and leadership are without reproach, but I am not convinced he is truly able to mix it with the best in the world.

For me, he falls in between the model of a classic 6 and 7, but he is neither outright and this for me is an issue.

England need an openside and should look no further than Steffon Armitage, but to do that Lancaster will have to change his selection policy.

There were some bizarre changes made from the bench also.

I do not understand the rationale to replace one of real attacking threats on the wing in Charlie Sharples with Mike Brown, a player that has hardly ever played on the wing.

It was naive.

Sharples’ exclusion from the squad to face South Africa is a surprise; I felt he at least deserved another chance.

I also realised how much England are missing players like Ben Foden.

Although Brown and Alex Goode are good players they miss that vital X factor that great world-class players like Foden have.

It is great news for the Saints, and England, that Foden is back and available much earlier that anticipated after his recent ankle injury.

The beauty of the autumn series is that an opportunity to put things right is usually available the following weekend, and they have that chance on Saturday against South Africa but the challenge does not get any easier. Tom Wood is back in the starting line-up which is a positive.

He, along with Joe Launchbury and Mako Vunipola, made an immediate impact with their appearance in the second half against Australia.

Vunipola seemed to turn things around up front when he replaced Joe Marler, the Quins man had a real bump back down to earth.

It will be a day he learn a great deal from as he suffered at the hands of Aussie tight head Ben Alexander.

I am also pleased to see Ben Morgan returning to the squad, I was disappointed to see Thomas Waldrom selected ahead of him as I think Morgan has much more to offer.

England clearly have concerns over his fitness levels, if he can address this in the long term he is the strike runner in the back row that England need.

It is a big hill to climb against the Springboks this weekend, not impossible but very tough.

The most important thing for me to see this weekend is an England with some drive, energy and aggression if we get that then I am confident a result and more importantly a performance could be on the cards.

GOODBYE GRAYS, AND THANKS FOR EVERYTHING

There was a sense of inevitability and no major surprise with the news of Paul Grayson’s parting of ways at the Saints this week.

Jim Mallinder, and his coaching team, have been under a huge amount of pressure recently and if there was to be an obvious fall guy it was always going to be Grays.

I have known Paul for well over 20 years now, and in my opinion he had one the most intelligent rugby brains as a player and that has subsequently helped him as a coach.

He has given so much to the Saints over the years and truly deserves the title of Saints legend, he has been integral in the most memorable moments in this club history.

But as we know, there is no place for sentiment in the modern game and no matter what you have achieved in the past if you are not delivering in the present then that is what you are judged by.

I sincerely hope Mallinder has some new blood lined up to immediately replace Paul as they badly need it.

Grays is well liked by the squad and his presence will be missed.

This is a team very low on confidence at the moment and a change in the coaching team can only serve to make players even more unsettled if the future is uncertain.

Their performance against Newport Gwent Dragons on Sunday did nothing to quell the unnerving feeling I have that this Saints squad is at a major crossroads.

The rumours are that several key players are potentially on their way out of the Gardens at the end of this season, and if that is the case then it is not an ideal environment for them hitting their targets this season.

Grays’s departure in my view does not take the pressure off Mallinder to get this team back on track, and if steps forwards are not made very soon then Paul might not be the only coaching departure this season.

I am getting the sense that the board is finally starting to lose some patience with the ‘nearly-men’ tag that Saints have developed over the past few seasons.

Coming to the subject of replacements for Grays, no obvious candidate springs to mind and that is a worry.

It’s not a great time to look for a replacement when all the best people are under contract.

This limbo situation can only lead me to the conclusion that this weekend’s critical game against London Welsh is increasingly looking like a big banana skin which would be a disaster for the Saints.

 

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