Rugby Union

England on road to rugby failure with Lancaster & Robshaw

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England's start to one of the most evenly-matched Six Nations Championships in living memory will be dominated by questions surrounding whether a young team with tremendous raw potential can come good under the pressure of hosting a Rugby World Cup this Autumn, which is a shame because the tournament is something to be savoured in its own right.

The harsh truth is that the sum total of 15 matches between Europe's very best rarely has a meaningful impact on the fight for the Webb Ellis trophy, the statistics prove it.

Only Sir Clive Woodward's all-conquering team of 2003 have ever followed up Six Nations success by winning rugby's ultimate prize in the same calendar year, which is an incredible feat that in truth looks well beyond Stuart Lancaster's current crop.

Lancaster has huge questions to answer

Now before this comes across a complete hatchet job for Lancaster is has to be said that the stern but approachable Yorkshireman has done some sterling work to make England competitive against any side in the world once again.

Competitive isn't enough though, particularly when you delve deeper into the enormous funding that makes England the richest rugby nation on the planet by some distance.

Numbers just don't add up

In the last financial year the RFU recorded a revenue of £152.2 million, which despite being slightly down £2.3m on 2013 puts a massive chasm between English rugby and even the wealthiest Southern Hemisphere nation.

Richest doesn't always mean best of course, but it does mean that Lancaster won't be able to hide a long injury list if he fails to finally break his Six Nations duck at the fourth attempt this year.

Lancaster missed out by the narrowest of margins in 2014, only edged on points difference by Ireland as they desperately clung on to a slender 22-20 victory at the Stade de France to top the table on points difference.

Ultimately it still says runner-up on Lancaster's resume though, which is a tag he's in serious danger of failing to break free from without an improvement in fortunes when it really matters most.

Wales clash is a genuine acid test

Tonight's showdown with Wales at the Millennium Stadium will no doubt bring back some painful memories for Lancaster of 2013, a humiliating 30-3 defeat that ended his chances of Grand Slam success.

The vast majority of his starting XV won't be able to channel that pain into an improved performance though, because only four men remain for a fixture which could well set the tone for a year with no margin for error.

Injuries have robbed Lancaster of the chance to pick no fewer than 12 potential starters for the famous showdown between English red rose and Welsh dragon, but even so the fact that only Mike Brown, Joe Marler, Dan Cole and captain Chris Robshaw are back to prove themselves in Cardiff is pretty revealing.

England Injuries 3

Player rotation a big problem

Lancaster has preached the need to build a culture of pride, passion, spirit and togetherness at international level, but using 66 players in 34 matches tells a very different story unfortunately.

England Injuries 2

Perhaps most alarmingly is the constant chop and change at fly-half, a position which clearly still lacks direction and has resulted in a disjointed England midfield that was exposed all too easily in defeats to Southern Hemisphere superpowers New Zealand and South Africa last Autumn.

Lancaster is clearly still unsure what his best central combination is, with Owen Farrell failing to perform and far from fully fit in the Autumn, while George Ford is hugely talented but untested with just eight internationals to play until the World Cup.

Danny Cipriani fully deserves his recall to the fold, but he's been good enough and equally importantly disciplined enough to be back in contention for some time.

Lancaster seems to have Cipriani earmarked for the role of impact substitute at this stage, but when we know what he's capable of and judging from his current chop-and-change selection policy in such an important position don't be surprised if that changes quickly.

England Injuries 3

Questions marks surrounding Robshaw remain

One selection Lancaster has stuck by is Robshaw at openside flanker, a skipper of brute force and sheer determination that epitomises all the best qualities of his coach.

Robshaw has come a long way since that horrid decision to go for the late kick in a 16-15 defeat to South Africa, but once again there's still a big doubt over his ability to lead against the very best.

Purely on ability his position in the side full stop has been openly questioned throughout Lancaster's reign, particularly during an alarming dip in form during battles with New Zealand last summer.

World's top 50?

Perhaps that's one of the reasons why an esteemed panel of rugby experts put together by The Telegraph, including Austin Healey and Sir Ian McGeechan, failed to find room for Robshaw inside the top 50 of their best 100 players on the planet right now.

Lancaster will find the list tough to take and there's not a single one of his players inside the top 30, with some of his most rough diamonds failing to progress as he'd like over the last 18 months.

Unfortunately England now have little choice but to stick with a duo that are desperate to prove their worth, but ultimately judging from their current trajectory look destined to fall short.

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Rugby Union
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