Ah, May – a glorious month for rugby watchers in the northern hemisphere. The sun comes out, pitches harden and drama intensifies. Last weekend in the Aviva Premiership, for instance, there was an average of almost 52 points and just under eight tries per match. That second figure was even higher than the Super 15’s corresponding statistic, which doesn’t happen very often.
What is more, each of the English domestic fixtures – bar Gloucester’s high-octane encounter with London Irish – had something riding on it. These giddy score-fests did not constitute empty end-of-season jollies.
Though brave Worcester Warriors finally succumbed to relegation and European places are sewn up pending Wasps’ double-header against Stade Francais, the final round retains intrigue. Leicester Tigers can strike a psychological blow to Saracens at Welford Road before the play-offs and the Twickenham Stoop plays host to what is effectively a quarter-final between Harlequins and Bath.
It’s pretty exciting for everyone – everyone that is, apart from Stuart Lancaster. He might need to watch through his fingers.
England’s head coach has a lot to ponder over the next month, and must feel as though his hands are tied painfully tight. An administrative error made in RFU-IRB scheduling – misjudging the June international window and then failing to amend the trip’s itinerary – means Lancaster’s side heads to New Zealand for a three-Test series just one week after the Premiership decider. None of the finalists will be available for the opening match at Eden Park, where the All Blacks are unbeaten since 1994.
It’s a tour that has been on Lancaster’s radar for a long time, factored into a meticulous development plan for his burgeoning squad. A hat-trick of successive clashes with the world champions is daunting, but also an opportunity to ensure England are battle-hardened for RWC 2015 and aware of exactly what it would take to win the Webb Ellis trophy. However, this farcical situation means there is a lot of traffic to dodge.
Take the shoot-out at the Stoop. Is it better for England if Bath or Harlequins progress? Would Lancaster rather be able to wrap George Ford and crucial tighthead David Wilson in cotton wool, or give a rest to the vital triumvirate of Danny Care, Mike Brown and skipper Chris Robshaw? It’s a fairly grim catch-22, made tougher because as intensity increases to mark the campaign’s climax, players will not let up thanks to professionalism and pride. Plus, club fans won’t accept tentativeness. Quite right, too.
England’s enterprising Six Nations was more impressive for the illustrious absentees – Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Geoff Parling, Alex Corbisiero, Christian Wade, Marland Yarde. On Wednesday, Lancaster confirmed that Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Jack Nowell will not travel for varying reasons. Croft, Corbisero and Wade are to undertake full pre-seasons, while Billy Twelvetrees, Dylan Hartley and Rob Webber are in manic fitness battles. That’s more than half a team.
Diligent as he is, Lancaster will have worked out every permutation. Some of them are quite encouraging, too. A Saracens-Leicester final – not unlikely given the Fez-heads’ form and Tigers’ track-record at Franklin’s Gardens – would leave all of the starting 15 from the win over Wales except for Owen Farrell and Nowell. That is assuming Twelvetrees recovers from an ankle tweak.
Others are less kind. If Northampton and Harlequins make it, there will be a chasm of leadership and attacking spark – Hartley and Lawes is the lineout axis, Care and Mike Brown the try-scoring catalysts, Robshaw and Wood the gnarled, industrious generals. None would be in Auckland.
Europe complicates matters further. Saracens face Toulon in what promises to be an eye-wateringly physical skirmish at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium for the Heineken Cup. Saints and Bath meet in the Amlin. Wasps host Stade before hopping over The Channel on May 24. Graham Rowntree could really do without an injury to Joe Launchbury over those 160 minutes.
All these complications means Lancaster will be biting his fingernails for a large proportion of the ensuing weeks. Given the logistical minefield, an initial party he announces on May 15 will be sparse before other names are added 11 days later.
England do possess depth. Magnificent locks Dave Attwood and Ed Slater are due an opportunity, likewise Tuilagi, who has a history of destroying New Zealand. Talk is already of a ‘hooker crisis’, but even if Hartley cannot feature at Eden Park, Dave Ward and Jamie George are very capable. That said, capable does not cut it against the All Blacks.
Following an uncertain beginning to the Super 15, some influential Kiwis are clunking into top gear. Hurricanes number two Dane Coles is tearing around like Superman in a yellow shirt. Richie McCaw is fit again, while Ma’a Nonu and Charles Piutau look capable of ripping up any defence on Earth. Beauden Barrett is an impossibly talented fly-half. The gargantuan tussle for Steve Hansen’s blindside berth between Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam and Steven Luatua defines the task in hand for Lancaster.
In fits and starts, England resembled an excellent outfit during the Six Nations and can realistically target at least one victory. Circumstances are conspiring against them, though. It feels oddly fitting to paraphrase Coldplay lyrics: “Nobody said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard.”
To read our exclusive interview with England centre Manu Tuilagi, see the June 2014 issue of Rugby World, on sale until 2 June.