England head to NZ to lay down 'huge marker'

BIG TASK AHEAD: England coach Stuart Lancaster.
BIG TASK AHEAD: England coach Stuart Lancaster.

England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster says his players are coming on their historic, and controversial, three-test tour of New Zealand to lay down a "huge marker" for next year's World Cup.

Far from being disillusioned or distraught over the scheduling cock-up that will see England without a heavy contingent of Northampton and Saracens players for the opening test at Eden Park on June 7, Lancaster remains adamant he will have a competitive squad for the opening international.

And he makes no bones about the importance of England backing up on two huge performances against the All Blacks in their last two meetings - a monumental upset at Twickenham in November of 2012, and a 30-22 defeat at the same venue 12 months later that saw them lead 22-20 going into the final quarter.

"This will be a huge marker for us leading into the World Cup," Lancaster told a conference call with New Zealand media last night. 

"The clock is ticking. We don't have many players who will be there in 2015 who would have played at previous World Cup, we've got an average age of 24, we're a young side, and when you haven't got previous World Cups to draw back on you've got to use information from every game you play to make your calls."

Lancaster is also adamant that those calls won't be compromised by the scheduling snafu which will see a touring group eventually numbering around 42 arrive in two waves - with those playing in the English Premiership final next weekend not available until the second week.

Asked about what he could take from the opening test given he'll be shorn so many frontliners, he replied: "We'll read a lot into it. While it's not ideal not to have the likes of Owen Farrell or Billy Vunipola or Courtney Lawes, there will be a lot of guys who have had a lot of experience with us over the last two years.

"We'll be reading a lot into it because we want to be competitive in that first test. We know it's going to be challenging for both teams with limited preparation time, but we've had a really good Six Nations and we feel we'll be ready."

The England coach, who will be sweating on the fitness of New Zealand-born hooker Dylan Hartley and ace fullback Mike Brown prior to naming his touring squad next week, acknowledged his country's record in New Zealand was poor but said he would not be targeting a specific number of victories.

"It's a very difficult place to come and win. We've won two tests ever, in 1972 and 2003, and to win the series we're going to have to match that. It's going to be tough.

"But overall we've got a good group of young players coming through who have got confidence and belief, and we'll go in fuelling that belief and make sure we're ready for that first test."

In words that will resonate in this country, Lancaster also pledged to win back the respect of the New Zealand public after recent English visits had degenerated into somewhat of a rabble.

He said the first step in rebuilding the reputation had been to make England rugby fans at home proud of the team again. 

"We feel we've made good progress in that regard. Clearly there's now work to do when travelling overseas and I'll be impressing on the players massively the importance of coming across as good ambassadors and earning the respect of the New Zealand public both on and off the field."

Some critics in England have labelled this tour a "farce" because of the overlap. But as Lancaster awaits one more weekend of end-of-season club rugby to ascertain the fitness of his players, it's clear he does not share that view.

"We're still developing an understanding of who can and can't deliver at the highest level, and having a broader tour party means we'll come to the toughest place in the world to play rugby under the pressure of playing a champion team with huge experience. We'll find out one way or other who can and can't [cut it], and that will be invaluable for me."

There's a good chance former bad bay, and ex-Melbourne Rebel, Danny Cipriani could be among the touring troupe. If so he'll be travelling under Lancaster's rules. 

"I wouldn't make the decision to bring him back in if I didn't feel he could be trusted. I'm always prepared to give someone a second chance, the ball's back in Danny's court to prove he's prepared to work hard for the team and put England rugby first."