London – England coach Stuart Lancaster is now eagerly looking forward to his side's opening Test against the All Blacks on their tour of New Zealand rather than dreading the clash with the world champions.
Following a narrow opening loss to France and a 20-0 rout of Scotland in Edinburgh last weekend, Lancaster is set to name an unchanged side, injuries permitting, when England continue their Six Nations Championship title quest against unbeaten Ireland at Twickenham on February 22.
“It's looking relatively settled,” Lancaster said of his line-up.
And the possible return from injury of full-back Ben Foden, wing Marland Yarde and centre Manu Tuilagi before the end of the Six Nations is unlikely to persuade Lancaster to alter his side.
But he will almost certainly have to do just that for the first Test against New Zealand in Auckland on June 7 given England will be without those players taking part in the Premiership final a week earlier.
Beating New Zealand – something England have managed on just seven occasions in 36 Tests spanning more than a hundred years – is difficult enough with a first-choice team, let alone one where selection is compromised.
However, Lancaster reckoned he'd seen an upside to what appeared to be a handicap.
“The more I've thought about it, the more I'm quite enthused by the opportunity to give others a chance,” he said.
“We had a training session the other day where it was 15 on 15
and I looked at the team that were starting against Scotland and I looked at the second that were training against them and it was pretty good team.
“So for that first Test in New Zealand, it's not a bad thing that someone else is going to have to start for England in order to evolve our depth.”
Lancaster, looking even further ahead to next year's World Cup in England, added: “A World Cup is not won by 15 Ä only three players in New Zealand's team played all seven games.
“I have an evolving spreadsheet that changes. It's in my mind as well.”
However, Lancaster said Championship success was uppermost in his mind right now.
“I need to create opportunities for other players, but not to compromise the team's chance of success the Six Nations,” he explained.
Ireland, gunning for a Grand Slam, have conceded a mere nine points in the course of defeating Scotland and defending champions Wales this Six Nations.
And Lancaster was in no doubt of their quality.
“Ireland are becoming the most complete side, definitely, because they've clearly improved in their forward play,” he said.
“John Plumtree is their new forwards and defence coach and you can see the improvements they've made in that area.
“Their mauling game, as we saw against Wales, was excellent, so technically they're very good.
“They're very good at the breakdown, which is another element of John Plumtree's role.
“And Joe Schmidt is a very good head coach who understands the different strategies needed to win games.
“Ireland have kicked the ball probably double the amount of times they did during the autumn (November) internationals. They manage the tactical game very well.
“The third part of the equation is the quality of players they have,” said Lancaster of a side boasting the likes of centre Brian O'Driscoll, outside-half Jonathan Sexton and lock Paul O'Connell.
“There were over 700 caps in their team and you only have to look at how many British Lions they have. It's a pretty good side all round at the moment.” – Sapa-AFP