STUART LANCASTER HAD a laundry list of wrongs to right within the English set-up when he took over from Martin Johnson in 2011.
After kicking most of the under-performing coaching staff to the curb and installing tried and trusted lieutenants, he went about re-establishing the power of the England pack. New, young players were identified, given time to bed-in and led by a remarkable, hard-working Harlequins back-row called Chris Robshaw.
A new out-half was needed as the Jonny Wilkinson era, for the third time, was deemed over. Owen Farrell was pitched into the fray and is slowly proving — with the acknowledged tactical help of Jonathan Sexton — to be more than just a reliable goal-kicker. He was outstanding for close to an hour away to France as England took the game to their hosts.
The English backline, with its beige, basic midfield, is still a work in progress but help is at hand. Lancaster is finally turning to Robshaw’s ‘Quins teammate Danny Care to pull the strings. Care, who had trials with Sheffield Wednesday as a teenager, has added an extra, attacking spark to England and is happy kicking drop goals over, rather than under, the bar in the current championship. He knows where the tryline is and is happy to weave his way there when a scrum-half sized gap appears.
Conor Murray came out of the Lions Tour, and the recent win over Wales, as the northern hemisphere’s best 9. His partnership with Sexton is undisputed for the past two seasons and both are key to Ireland’s success. In Care and Farrell, however, Murray senses danger.
“I played against Care last year,” said Murray, “leading into the Heineken Cup. He’s a threat and will try anything from anywhere on the pitch. He has the ability to pull off some really spectacular plays and is someone we will really have to keep an eye on.
He likes to snipe in and around the rucks and will try little dinks; he’ll throw offloads. Whoever is in that frontline of defence, I’ll try and talk to them to make sure they have an eye on him and his quick taps.”
Murray continued, “I got to know Owen quite well on the Lions Tour last summer and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a good player. He is a focal point of their attack at this stage and has really taken ownership of the way they play… He’s a great kicker of the ball but his passing game is something many people may not know a lot about. On the Lions Tour I got to see, up close and personal, he has a wide range of passes, and some lengthy passes too.”
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It has been widely reported that Bath’s young out-half George Ford may be ready to make the step-up to the England bench for Saturday’s game. When asked about the 20-year-old today, England defence coach Andy Farrell backed Ford, who has played closely with Peter Stringer over the past 18 months, to shine.
The expected promotion of Ford to the England bench suggests Lancaster may be prepared to loosen the reins even further and seek to stretch Ireland in the closing stages. The home side will hope that the out-half can enter the fray with his team well on their way to a fourth successive victory over their guests.