After an autumn-salvaging win against Australia last Saturday, England can walk away from their four match mini-series with a little momentum building as they head into the Six Nations next year, safe in the knowledge that they have the edge on one of their World Cup group rivals. The November Tests have revealed a lot about Lancaster’s current crop – at times showing his squad’s clear strengths whilst at other moments horribly exposing the areas where England desperately need strengthening if they are to seriously challenge for rugby’s biggest prize next year. In light of this, I’ve updated the ladder I put together before the series started; I’m pleased to see some of my predictions went well, whilst others fell wide of the mark. England’s pack was generally very impressive, whilst the backs struggled – with the odd notable exception – to exert much influence on the games.
Just to be clear the numbers refer to the current position of that player on the ‘England importance ladder’, based on us second guessing Lancaster’s thoughts, not their position on the field. Those digits in the brackets mark where they sat in our pre-Autumns rundown, meaning you can see who’s botched things and whose stock has risen over the last month or so…clever innit. Taking all that into consideration, here’s my new ladder of Lancaster’s Roses.
1 (3) Manu Tuilagi
Whilst absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder, England looked chronically short of thrust and thought in the midfield throughout the autumn series sans Manu and were horribly shown up by the genius of Australia’s back-line in the most. Tuilagi has been England’s stand-out player of the past few years, possessing oodles of power and pace as well as subtle touches of flair which will bring England’s back three more into play. Lancaster needs him back and soon.
2 (7) Courtney Lawes
The only England player who comes ‘close to world-class’ at the moment according to the Sunday Times’ rugby correspondent and all-time Anglophobe, Stephen Jones. This is high praise indeed, and is fully justified after Lawes’ titanic displays in all four matches. The Hackney born hatchet man tackled like a man possessed (he made 12 in the hour he was on the field against the Wallabies) and was athletic and accurate as ever at the line-out. He also covered huge amounts of ground and his last-gasp, try-saving hit on Adam Ashley-Cooper will live long in the memory.
3 (1) Joe Marler
An absolute pillar at loose-head in the scrum and workmanlike around the field, Marler was notably the only England player to make it into Stuart Barnes’ World XV based on last month’s performances. England’s scrummaging was excellent throughout the series, culminating in the dismantling of the Wallabies last Saturday at Twickenham and Marler deserves huge credit for that. With question marks constantly surrounding the fitness of Alex Corbisiero, Marler looks a dead cert to start in the Six Nations and beyond.
4 (4) Chris Robshaw
The England skipper got through his usual huge amount of work and made as many tackles as I can remember anyone ever making. More pleasing for Lancaster and England fans were his two crucial turn-overs against Australia, both of which halted the visitors’ dangerous attacking momentum. Still the right man to lead England.
5 (5) Dylan Hartley
Barring one moment of madness against the Boks and a single wayward throw against the Australians, Hartley had an outstanding series. Dynamic at scrum-time, immaculate at the line-out and a willing ball carrier around the park, big Dyl has secured the number 2 shirt for the foreseeable future.
6 (20) Ben Morgan
Before the series, all the talk was of Billy Vunipola and what good form the Saracens Number 8 was in. Fast forward a month and Morgan has ousted the incumbent, showing an increased work rate and sheer power and dynamism with ball in hand. His first try against Australia in particular was special, and reminiscent of a certain Lawrence Dallaglio whose great bald cranium was watching on from the stand. Our list’s biggest mover, expect Big Ben to start against Wales.
7 (19) George Ford
Another big mover up the ladder after two impressive displays against Samoa and Australia. Kicked beautifully out of hand to give England territorial advantage and looked more dangerous and creative in attack than Farrell. He’s staked his claim for the starting berth at 10 and deserves a run.
8 (12) Tom Wood
Tireless around the park, athletic in the line-out and even created a try for Ben Morgan in the last game, Wood emphasised his value to this England side with consistent performances across the board.
9 (14) Brad Barritt
I wrote a pretty scathing snippet for Brad before the series started, and have been consuming my metaphorical hat since as he proved me wrong time and time again. A visceral bastion in defence, Barritt literally put his body on the line for his country, spilling plenty of claret in the process. In attack, he showed moments of improvement, hitting a great angle to set up Morgan’s first try v Australia and according to McGeechan, he deserves to start alongside Tuilagi in the Six Nations. And who am I to argue with the great Geech?
10 (18) Jonny May
Scored a sensational try against the All Blacks and looked dangerous at times against the others. Chased kicks very well and now looks much more acclimatised to international footy. Has secured his wing spot going forward.
11 (22) Ben Youngs
Another big winner of the autumn, Young has wrestled back the 9 shirt from Danny Care following some punchy contributions off the bench and an accomplished performance from the start versus Australia. His kicking was noticeably improved and he looked more composed than the fretting Care.
12 (13) Dave Wilson
Didn’t put a foot wrong and was part of a powerful front row effort that put the Aussies to the sword. Solid if unspectacular in the loose, he will have a fight on his hands to retain his place if Dan Cole finds form for club in the coming weeks, but deserves to be there or thereabouts come Six Nations time.
13 (2) Mike Brown
Brown had a quiet and slightly disappointing series and there are some calls in the media for Alex Goode to be reinstated at 15. Needs to go back to 'Quins and rekindle that cavaliering attacking prowess but I expect Lancaster to back his man in the New Year.
14 (23) Antony Watson
Showed some pleasant touches and exciting footwork in attack. Currently looks worth sticking with due a lack of in-form contenders for his place.
15 (10) Dan Cole
England missed his burrowing and bustling presence at the breakdown, where Cole functions almost as another back-row forward. If he rediscovers fitness and form with Leicester, he will be back in the mix for the Wales game.
16 (9) Joe Launchbury
Out till the New Year at the earliest, Lancaster rates this youngster very highly and England missed his work rate around the breakdown where he generates quick ball. He should come straight back in for Six Nations after proving his fitness.
17 (6) Owen Farrell
Came into the series short of form and game time and it really showed as Farrell had a desperately disappointing autumn. Looked rudderless in attack and his usually flawless kicking was at times mediocre. Must go away and put in the hours with his club, though I fear he may well be riding the pine for for a while with England.
18 (15) Dave Attwood
Full of effort and strength but looked a little short of class on the international stage. Botched a crucial two-on-one against the Boks which ended up proving costly, though he was powerful in the maul and ruck areas. He will be in the squad for Six Nations, but I expect a fully fit Launchbury to get the nod ahead of him.
19 (11) Danny Care
Struggled to find the same scintillating form that he showed during the last Six Nations campaign, throwing an intercept against South Africa and generally looking out of sorts. Still has a big future for England but must do better.
20 (26) Matt Mullan
Did very well when he came off the bench and was singled out for praise by England’s management. Expect to see him feature in a similar role come spring.
21 (21) Rob Webber
Decent contributions as a sub when called on. Another one who will be unfortunate to miss out in the Six Nations if not named in the squad.
22 (27) Billy Twelvetrees
Twelvetrees is not much closer to convincing Lancaster that he deserves to start at 12 in the long-term for England. He received the thin praise of bringing ‘good energy’ to the side by his head coach when he came off the bench versus Samoa, but was shown up by Matt Toomua of Australia and still looks defensively fragile whilst void of class going forward.
23 (16) Kyle Eastmond
Had his moments but failed to stamp any sort of authority on the games he was involved in. Perhaps not helped by playing outside an out-of-form Farrell and not his club mate Ford, but Eastmond has undoubtedly missed an opportunity this autumn.
24 (31) James Haskell
No shortage of will and determination but still looks a bit headstrong for international rugby. Gave away some silly penalties versus Samoa but carried well in difficult conditions.
25 (New Entry) Danny Cipriani
In the form of his life for Sale and desperately wants another shot at the big time. Could be the answer to England's faltering back-line play if Ford gets found out versus Wales.
26 (25) George Kruis
27 (28) Marland Yarde
28 (24) Kieran Brookes
29 (17) Semesa Rokoduguni
30 (35) Alex Goode
31 (40) Richard Wigglesworth
32 (30) Lee Dickson
33 (29) Jack Nowell
34 (34) Jonathan Joseph
35 (39) Ben Foden
36 (38) Matt Kvesic
37 (32) Calum Clarke
38 (New Entry) Chris Ashton
39 (New Entry) Henry Thomas
40 (New Entry) Christian Wade