Few would envy the meetings Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, and his coaching staff will be having ahead of their second Test against New Zealand in Dunedin on Saturday.
Selection headaches following the series opener at Eden Park were inevitable. Lancaster entered the first match of the three-match series bereft of his Saracens and Northampton Saints representatives following their involvement in the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham.
Few could have envisaged the dilemma facing Lancaster however, as several first-choice players watched from the stands as their replacements seized their opportunity and increased their stock significantly as England threatened to derail New Zealand’s remarkable unbeaten run. For 77 minutes, England were in contention, even on top for periods, before a bitter twist saw Conrad Smith touch down in the right corner to give Steve Hansen’s side a 20-15 triumph.
Only six of the players that featured in the final Six Nations match against Italy took to the field at Eden Park and should England have been rolled over by an imperious All Blacks side, the scenario would have been simple for Lancaster, who welcomed 16 pairs of fresh legs into training on Monday morning. Alex Goode - currently nursing a shoulder injury - the lone new addition not fit for the second Test. As it is, strong performances throughout the field has left Lancaster with a number of selection quandaries.
Much of England’s success in Auckland, like their most recent victory against the All Blacks at Twickenham in 2012, was testament to the relentless work at the breakdown. In places, the effervescent Richie McCaw and Liam Messam were rendered inoperative as Chris Robshaw, the returning James Haskell and Ben Morgan formed an efficient back-row combination that claimed the upper hand on the All Blacks at the ruck.
Captain Robshaw hit more rucks than any other England player (25) in Auckland, with Morgan close behind on 23 while Haskell - recalled to the international stage after a year-long absence - made 13 tackles and forced four turnovers. Not only in defence did the back row excel, Robshaw made 10 breaks on the move and Morgan offered a courageous display of his carrying ability as he took England towards the halfway line with a solo run off the back of a scrum on their own five-metre line.
Robshaw is certain to lead England out at Forsyth Barr, but the return of Tom Wood and Billy Vunipola poses a significant threat to Haskell and Morgan’s chances of involvement. Flanker Wood has forged a seamless partnership with Robshaw in recent years and Vunipola terrorised English and European defences in a stellar season for Saracens.
Leicester Tigers second-row Geoff Parling had not pulled on the England jersey since their 2013 defeat at the hands of the All Blacks at Twickenham, with injury plaguing the majority of his Premiership campaign. There was no evidence of rustiness however as Parling dominated the line-out as England won all 13 of their line-outs.
British Lion Parling and fellow lock Joe Launchbury made 11 tackles each while their impact at the set-piece could not be ignored. Although in Parling’s absence, Launchbury and Northampton second-row Courtney Lawes have forged a partnership which has been dubbed the “best in the world”, meaning Lancaster must now choose whether to return to familiar ways or retain a successful formula.
Launchbury and Lawes have developed a unique understanding since being thrust together following Parling’s shoulder injury, though, his return suggests there has been no detrimental impact on his game. Meanwhile, Lawes arrived in New Zealand buoyant after a domestic and European double with Saints and offers Lancaster an added element of physicality, averaging more hits and carries per game than Parling.
Although it was a much-changed England side, the pack still managed to keep a perfect record, winning every scrum and line-out awarded their way. If Parling was the commander of the line-out, Rob Webber was the chief orchestrator as he picked out his target successfully on each occasion, even outwitting the All Blacks by looping a ball over the head of a towering Brodie Retallick to find his team-mate.
Hooker has been an area of concern for some time for Lancaster, who is without Tom Youngs due to personal reasons, while Dylan Hartley faced a race against fitness to make the tour. However, despite making the tour, Saints No 2 Hartley admitted this week he may have to settle for a place on the bench after the excellent performance of his replacement, who is currently seen as England’s third-choice hooker.
The front row were responsible for six scrum wins and one steal from an All Black put-in, although a number of handling errors blemished David Wilson’s performance in the loose. Joe Marler, often under scrutiny for his short fuse, kept himself in check and offered a solid evening’s work to secure his spot for Dunedin.
In the build-up to the opening Test, many of the selection debates centred around Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani as they battled for the No 10 shirt. Lancaster, in a move unexpected by many, opted for the out-of-form Gloucester fly-half Burns ahead of Cipriani, who did complete his return to the England side from the bench.
Both bought credit as Burns was peerless from the kicking tee as he justified Lancaster’s confidence, although his deep-laying game fails to offer an attacking edge and one thing Saturday’s reverse proved is that you cannot beat the All Blacks without scoring tries. Enter Cipriani, who reaped the rewards of his training with Scottish sprint coach Margot Wells, by adding a dynamic edge to the England attack following his second-half introduction.
Without question, Saracens No 10 Owen Farrell is England’s first-choice fly-half, but the impact Cipriani made from the bench could see him retain his place in the match-day squad. Farrell is likely to restore his half-back partnership with Danny Care after he recovered from a self-inflicted training ground injury, with his replacement Ben Youngs failing to stake his claim, making fumbles that cost England dear.
Possibly the highlight of England’s first Test selection was the way in which Bath’s Kyle Eastmond, earning only his second start, forged an impressive partnership with the imposing Manu Tuilagi. Eastmond was a stand-out performer, making a series of clean breaks as well as completing nine tackles, almost half of which being against the potent Ma’a Nonu.
The selection of Eastmond offered a new lease of freedom for Tuilagi, who was England’s top carrier as he took 10 of his 13 runs over the gain line. However, England’s World Cup winning coach from 2003, Sir Clive Woodward, called for Tuilagi to switched out wide to accommodate the return of five-cap Saints centre Luther Burrell, who rose to prominence in the 2014 Six Nations.
Despite being declared fit, Billy Twelvetrees’ chequered injury record of late could see him overlooked, while Eastmond’s performance at Eden Park laid down a fine marker for the future. Whether Lancaster’s will have the courage to test Tuilagi in the wide berth against the reigning world champions is yet to be seen, though, his athleticism and power could prove devastating when released down the touchline.
After an unrivalled 2013 season and claiming the Six Nations Player of the Championship crown in spring, Mike Brown is immovable at full-back, even if Saturday’s showing fell short of his increasingly high standards. Brown, recently named Premiership and England Player of the Year, struggled under the high ball in testing conditions and at times lacked communication with his colleagues as he collided with Jonny May to knock on.
Lancaster has shown faith in Gloucester winger May, who featured in all five Six Nations matches, although the arrival of a free-scoring Chris Ashton could lead the England coach to switch tact. Saracens flyer Ashton claimed eight tries as the London club finished top of the Premiership in the regular season, as well as setting a new Heineken Cup record for most tries in a campaign as he scored 11 times for the losing finalists.
Marland Yarde made only a third Test start on the right wing and although rightly yellow carded for failing to release in the closing stages, the London Irish winger produced a tidy all-round performance. Ashton has not played for England since their 2013 meeting with the All Blacks on home soil but his form in the red and black of Saracens cannot be ignored, while the possibility of Tuilagi being switched wide offers further attacking options as England aim to break down New Zealand’s resilient defensive wall.
First Test XV: 15 Brown, 14 Yarde, 13 Tuilagi, 12 Eastmond, 11 May, 10 Burns, 9 B Youngs, 1 Marler, 2 Webber, 3 Wilson, 4 Launchbury, 5 Parling, 6 Haskell, 7 Robshaw 8 Morgan
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Watch Stuart Lancaster name his squad for the second Test live on Sky Sports News at 11:15pm on Wednesday