Changing a culture around a side is not a four-year job. Regardless of the scandals of the 2011 World Cup campaign, which included midget-tossing, harbor-jumping and more than one good night out, when assessing Lancaster’s position performances on the pitch are effectively what counts.
Having become the first hosts in the history of the Rugby World Cup to be knocked out in the group stage, England’s improved public image in the last four years has become redundant.
Lancaster’s opponent on Saturday Michael Cheika has not even been in his role a full year. In the wake of Ewen Mckenzie’s resignation following the Kurtley Beale, Di Patston saga, which reportedly split the Australian dressing room, Cheika inherited an equally dysfunctional and disrupted culture.
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In the space of a year, he has created a seemingly unified side, which look more than capable of reaching the final on October 31. Unfortunately for Lancaster, the comparisons between the two sides don’t end there.
The irony of Australian’s dominance at the breakdown and Matt Giteau’s try in the game’s dying embers hasn’t gone unnoticed. Cheika was adamant he wanted Giteau in his side, as they aimed to become the first team to win a third World Cup.
Despite having played his club rugby in Toulon for the last four seasons, the Australian playmaker became eligible to play, along with Drew Mitchell, under the ‘Giteau rule’ and on Saturday fully justified this decision with an accurate and intelligent display, which drew on a wealth of international experience.
Conversely England’s one genuine open-side flanker, Steffon Armitage, has been consistently overlooked due to the RFU’s overseas selection policy. Lancaster didn’t create this policy, but he has stuck by it resolutely, despite the fact that he has known for three years that England would face two sides in Australian and Wales, who both possess two world-class sevens.
Armitage wouldn’t have proven the difference on Saturday, such was the gulf in class between the two sides, but without him Australia’s superiority at the breakdown was entirely predictable. Winning a World Cup requires world-class players and Lancaster has repeatedly ignored the 2014 European Player of the Year, in favour of his captain.
Whilst Pocock and Bernard Foley attracted most of the headlines in Saturday’s aftermath, another more unlikely, yet influential figure was Beale. Following Rob Horne’s injury inside the first 15 minutes, Beale was introduced giving Australia, along with Giteau and Bernard Foley a third playmaker in the back division.
Whereas England could only rely on Owen Farrell’s limited capabilities as a distributor, Australia looked capable of carving their opponents open at will, as they did for Foley’s second try.
Cheika’s handling of Beale compared with that of Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi, doesn’t bear favourably on Lancaster. Despite his involvement in the Patston scandal and previous issues with alcohol, Beale has been successfully reintegrated into the Wallaby squad and will now, in all likelihood start their remaining games on the wing.
Hartley and Tuilagi in contrast were immediately jettisoned for their offences on and off the field. Regardless of his extended list of disciplinary incidents, Hartley should still have been included and started after the Fiji game.
Replacement Tom Youngs is an arguably better player in the loose, however, the Northampton Saints’ vastly superior work at the set-piece was sorely missed in England’s two defeats. Tuilagi wouldn’t have been available for this World Cup because of injury, however, Lancaster’s handling of one of his star players was still radically different to that of Cheika.
Ultimately England failed when the pressure was really on. Lancaster, regardless of his inexperience, will be fully aware that international sport is a results business and his side came up short at their own event.
Though the work on culture was instrumental in Lancaster getting the permanent job, when compared with Australia’s turnaround in just a year, it cannot be used as justification for him to continue. Change is inevitable after failure and England’s must occur at the top.