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ENGLAND: All Change

IN December 1993, Geoff Cooke and Roger Uttley accepted the BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year award on behalf of the England rugby side of which they were manager and coach respectively.

Stuart Lancaster is developing a different culture within the England squad with a new group of players                         Photograph: Getty
Stuart Lancaster is developing a different culture within the England squad with a new group of players Photograph: Getty

It was a startling accolade. England had finished third – behind France and Scotland – in that year's Five Nations Championship. They had scraped a one-point victory over France in the opening match, and had been humiliated by Ireland, 17-3 at Lansdowne Road, on the tournament's final weekend. For most of 1993 they had been ordinary. It just didn't make sense.

The fact is that England were not the team of the entire year, just the team of November 27, 1993. On that day, at Twickenham, they had taken on the New Zealand side who had beaten the Lions in a Test series a few months earlier (and which had warmed up with a 51-15 thrashing of Scotland the previous weekend) and had crushed them 15-9.

In the record books, it stands out as a blip, a one-off. But in the eyes of their adoring public – and, conveniently, just a couple of weeks before the BBC Sports Personality poll closed – England had suddenly become world-beaters. In fairness, it was not a bad England side, and a couple of players would still be involved when they won the World Cup in Australia 10 years later, but perspective had clearly gone out the window.

Eight weeks ago, England beat New Zealand again, winning 38-21 at Twickenham with a third-quarter try blitz and a barrage of points from the boot of Owen Farrell. It was an even more remarkable outcome than the 1993 result as England went into the match having won only one of their last six matches, while the All Blacks were looking to extend a run of 20 games without defeat.

England coach Stuart Lancaster is a level-headed fellow, and he has spent the past two months beating out the flames of over-optimism that were sparked into life by that win. Sure, he is happy that his players might feel more confident in light of it. And yes, it was a satisfying way to end his first year in charge. But it was still just one win, and there was a distinct impression that New Zealand, drained by their Test schedule and with time off looming, might just have take their eyes off the ball.

But still, it was New Zealand. And New Zealand are the world champions.

So how good can England be? How good can Lancaster make them? The quietly-spoken Cumbrian was appointed as caretaker just over a year ago, and in the time since he has rebuilt the reputation and self-respect of the side. He inherited the shambles of a squad who had made fools of themselves at the 2011 World Cup and has instilled values and desire in the team. It has been a hugely impressive effort.

Some scoffed when Lancaster was appointed. As a player, his closest contact with international rugby was a solitary outing for Scotland Under-19s – his mother is from Dumfries – in 1989. He was a backroom man, a rugby technocrat, a minnow pitched in with the piranhas.

He rode his luck when Scotland's execrable finishing gifted him victory in his first match in charge, at Murrayfield last February. And maybe he enjoyed a few more dollops of good fortune as England went on to finish runners-up in the Six Nations, an achievement that turned his caretaker status into a permanent appointment.

But it was clear, even to outsiders, that the culture of the squad had changed. Lancaster had jettisoned a lot of bathwater, and was bringing up the babies pretty well.

"The long-term plan was to develop a new group of players," he explained. "I didn't know if I'd see it through beyond the interim period but I was delighted to get the chance. It is about growing a team."

There were 208 caps in the England starting XV against New Zealand, a total not significantly different from the number fielded against Scotland 11 months earlier. What had changed was the balance, with a few old-timers quietly put out to pasture and a few newcomers gradually accumulating experience.

Lancaster included. He acknowledges that the 2015 World Cup in England is a significant target for his side, and he recognises that the learning experience will mean knocks along the way.

"We've got 30 games to go before the next World Cup so we've got to make sure we invest that time in the right people so that we're ready for that," he said. "But we also want to win in the here-and-now."

But does any successful team have to learn to lose as well?

"You don't learn how to lose," Lancaster smiled. "You learn from losing. The easy thing to do is to cast aside the tape at the end of a game after an experience that hasn't gone well, and not deal with it. I think you learn as much when you lose, but you don't have a plan to lose a few to strengthen you as a team."

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