5 Questions England Fans Would Love to Ask Stuart Lancaster

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2015

5 Questions England Fans Would Love to Ask Stuart Lancaster

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    England head coach Stuart Lancaster leads his team into a home World Cup this September.

    When England last hosted the tournament they reached the final and lost to Australia.

    Twenty-four years later, the game and the tournament have changed beyond all recognition. Now, Lancaster's men must beat the Aussies and Wales if they even want to win their group, never mind lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

    Lancaster has certainly lifted England from out of the gloom following their dismal display at the 2011 World Cup, taking them to wins over the All Blacks and Australia, and coming close to four Six Nations titles.

    But, less than six months away from the big show, there remain several questions over selection and whether or not Lancaster's team are good enough to win the trophy.

    There are many answers to find between now and then if England are to reach the holy grail once again.

    Here are five burning questions the fans would like to know the answers to.

1. What Are You Going to Do About Steffon Armitage?

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    The Steffon Armitage question will continue to nag away at Lancaster.

    Exceptional circumstances allow him to override the ruling that overseas-based players cannot play for England, but in the absence of such a scenario, should Lancaster just be able to pick the best players regardless of where they earn their corn?

    He has said in the past he agrees with the principle, per the Daily Mail, but surely if he decided England’s World Cup chances are vastly improved with the Toulon man, he needs to bang on the door of the suits at Twickenham and demand the rule is brushed aside.

    Captain Chris Robshaw played well in the autumn and again in the Six Nations. His leadership has also improved, so it would seem the only way for a back row with Robshaw and Armitage to work would be to swap the skipper into the No. 6 shirt with Armitage playing No. 7.

    James Haskell sees it another way, per the Mirror, and thinks the former London Irish man should have come home if he wanted to resume his England career, just as the Wasps skipper did.

    Although Steff is an outstanding player it’s important to remember he’s had an opportunity to play for England. It’s not like he’s never had a chance.

    It was felt he didn’t have a role so obviously he went over to Toulon and he’s excelled over there. But he knows the rule.

    As a rugby purist, going over and playing in France is special. I thoroughly enjoyed my time. It made me a better player and broadened my horizons. But you know the rules.

    And former England hooker Brian Moore also believes the player should return, arguing he is much needed to improve the Red Rose back row, per the Telegraph.

    Hitherto I have not been convinced of the playing case for Steffon Armitage but I think that it is, by omission, made now.

    A back row of Armitage, Robshaw at six and Tom Wood or Billy Vunipola at No 8 would be better balanced and compelling.

    England should not alter their rule of not considering players who play abroad; they should put the spotlight firmly on Armitage.

    Lancaster should publicly state that Armitage would be included in the squad if he moves back to play in England. 

2. How Was Your Last Conversation with Ian Ritchie?

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    After another second place finish in the Six Nations, RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie broke cover to label the outcome "unacceptable," per the Guardian

    "We should as a country be winning more whether it is grand slams, championships or other things. We are, and I am trying to find a diplomatic way of saying this, not happy with how it came about."

    Quite how that sort of remark would have gone down with the head coach is anyone’s guess, because Lancaster has kept his counsel. But one coach has certainly passed judgment on Ritchie’s public criticism of the team.

    Dean Ryan, writing in the Guardian, said:

    If Lancaster is on a beach somewhere, probably in the Canaries, then it’s a good thing because the last thing England and Twickenham need is the head coach giving his reply in public, because it’s likely to be what every director of rugby or head coach in professional rugby has, at some time, said to a meddling owner who oversteps the line. Ritchie can advise and counsel Lancaster but he can’t tell the head coach how to run the England team.

    That is Lancaster’s job and if Ritchie and the executive become sufficiently unhappy about the way he is doing it … well the point of the pyramid snaps and the head coach goes, but that is unlikely to happen when he’s just been pipped to the title by a very good side.

3. What Is Going on with Manu Tuilagi?

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    One of the key men under Lancaster’s reign has not pulled on an England shirt for over nine months.

    Leicester Tigers' Manu Tuilagi has now been ruled out for the rest of this season, giving him a slim chance of having the requisite fitness and sharpness to start England’s World Cup campaign.

    We do not get much detail on his rehab or who is taking care of it, but how can it have dragged on for so long?

    He missed the start of the season with a groin problem, and then incurred this current groin injury against Ulster in October that has kept him out since.

    Questions have started to surface in the press. The Mail on Sunday’s Sam Peters wrote that it is believed the problem is in fact the "notoriously troublesome condition known as ‘Gilmore’s Groin’," adding:

    Leicester, who have conducted a root and branch review of their medical department this season, have repeatedly insisted his return is imminent despite growing rumours the problem is more serious than they have let on.

    In February Cockerill accused Tuilagi of inadvertently exaggerating the extent of his injury after he gave an interview saying he would not feature in the Six Nations. As it transpired, he played no role in tournament, although he did spend time with England’s medical team and remains a valued member of the squad. But serious questions will now be asked about the management of his injury after surgery was delayed in a bid to get him fit.

    After the previous season was ruined by a pectoral injury and now this campaign wrecked with the ongoing saga of his groin, Tuilagi is fast becoming the sick note of English rugby, just when he should have been maturing as its deadliest weapon.

4. Can You Trust Dylan Hartley?

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    It would take some scratching of the old grey matter to recall one piece of play that really stood out from Dylan Hartley in this Six Nations.

    Going back further, those eye-catching moments have usually revolved around a yellow card. Where was the powerful carrying of a Ross Ford or the big-hitting of a Richard Hibbard?

    In short, has Hartley’s disciplinary record—and his desire to curb the temper that has earned him such a rap sheet—removed too much aggression from his play?

    And, furthermore, if he doesn’t have his aggression, what does he have? Granted, a straight lineout throw most of the time is no bad quality to possess. But England need more from a hooker.

    Look at the world’s best like Stephen Moore, Bismarck du Plessis, Adriaan Strauss and Dane Coles. They carry, pass, look for work and give defenders another strapping hunk of fast-moving muscle to worry about, as well as hitting their men in the set piece.

    Furthermore, Hartley’s approach to match-officials has been questioned just this week by no less than Sir Ian McGeechan, who thought the hooker intimidated the whistle-blower of Saints' clash with Wasps at the weekend, per the Northampton Chronicle.

    The former Lions coach had, prior to the tournament, questioned Hartley’s ball-carrying skills and called for Rob Webber of Bath to start the competition, per the Telegraph.

    And while his fears over Hartley’s temperament did not materialise during the campaign, his assessment of him as a set-piece hooker rather than ball-carrier were on the mark.

    He only got into double figures for metres-run once—against Wales—per ESPNScrum.

    Hartley has bags of experience in a team lacking that, but is that enough to compensate for what seems to be lack of dynamism?

    And, more to the point, how far away is he ever going to be from his next spontaneous combustion?

5. Three Games from the World Cup, Do You Know Your Best XV?

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    Hands up if you think the honest answer to this would be "yes."

    There seems to be a number of positions that Lancaster isn’t 100 per cent settled on.

    The yardstick, as always, is the 2003 World Cup side, which was picking itself by this time ahead of that year's tournament, with Josh Lewsey the last player to muscle his way in, which he did in that year’s Six Nations.

    But there are probably a handful of areas Lancaster couldn’t, hand-on-heart, say he has nailed down yet.

    At lock, Courtney Lawes is back to his best and just needs to stay fit, but who to pair him with? If Joe Launchbury regains his form after injury he would be the favourite, but the experience of Geoff Parling will be hard to ignore.

    The back row we have already discussed. Haskell, Tom Wood and Steffon Armitage are all in the mix with no one certain of their spot.

    Scrum-half is now settled with Ben Youngs' strong Six Nations, and it will take something special to uproot George Ford from No. 10.

    Outside him, the fun and games begin. Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Luther Burrell, Billy Twelvetrees and Owen Farrell are all in the mix for the No. 12 shirt. It would be a reach to suggest Sam Burgess can jump that queue at this stage. In such a key position, to have so many question marks as to who is the best man for the job so late in the team’s development is far from ideal.

    Jonathan Joseph is this year’s Josh Lewsey, playing himself into No. 13 in the last five games.

    On the wings, there are more doubts, though. Jack Nowell had a good tournament and found his scoring touch against France, while Anthony Watson showed up well against Wales but was less effective thereafter, showing only flashes of his quality in the rest of the games.

    In addition to these two incumbents, Chris Ashton and Christian Wade are scoring tries for fun in the Premiership and both have the chance to shine this weekend in Europe. Jonny May has dropped down the list but is still a contender with his mazy counter-attacking ability and raw pace.

    Defence is a question mark hanging over all three of them, but in terms of raw try-scoring ability, Wade must be the one tempting Lancaster the most.

    Lots of issues to keep Lancaster and his coaches from their beds. Not much time to settle on them.

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