Lancaster chooses to be pragmatic for first test
England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster is a very measured man on a very defined mission, and not even some unsettling words from one of his predecessors to greet him on his first day in New Zealand could knock him off his stride.
Lancaster, of course, has some significant issues as he prepares his initial touring squad of 30 for the first of three tests against the All Blacks at Eden Park next Saturday.
A crazy scheduling conflict has denied Lancaster all of his players from Saracens and Northampton who are contesting the English Premiership final this weekend.
That prompted Clive Woodward, who guided England to their only World Cup triumph in 2003, to describe this visit as "the biggest cockup" since the "Tour from Hell" he led down under in 1998.
In his Daily Mail column, Woodward wrote: "Absolutely insane. That itinerary was put together by somebody who didn't put the England team first. Stuart Lancaster is having to leap through logistical hoops when this battle should have been fought - and won - a long time ago.
"This tour is starting on the back foot and it will be great credit to Lancaster, his coaches, and especially the players, if they come back with more positives than negatives from the hardest school in world rugby."
But Lancaster, speaking tonight from the team hotel in Auckland, refused to buy into any negative theories around his team's prospects against the world's No 1 team next Saturday.
"I wouldn't go as far as saying those things," said Lancaster when Stuff.co.nz asked him about Woodward's comments. "It's not ideal when you come to play the world champions in their own backyard and you haven't got your best side available. But it's a situation I inherited.
"We're not going to sit and moan about it. When you look at the side we've got available for this first test, virtually everyone has played international rugby in the last 12 months. We're confident in the lads we've got and it will just add to my selection problems when [the other players] come out for the second test."
Lancaster reiterated his previous stance that this tour presents as a great "stepping stone" towards next year's World Cup, and said the mindset of the players in New Zealand was very much an excited one. He also promised a well-behaved group who would prove they could behave like "good blokes" on tour.
In terms of the contentious No 10 position, where Lancaster will choose between former bad boy Danny Cipriani and the out-of-sorts Freddie Burns for the opening test, the staunch northerner was adamant he had enough to get him through Auckland before frontliners Owen Farrell and Stephen Myler jetted in next week.
"Freddie hasn't had such a great club season, but he's always delivered for us, and certainly he's got a fantastic opportunity now to really lay a marker down. He's moving to Leicester and this could be a great start for him going into next season.
"Danny is completely different. He's played seven times for England but never on my watch. But I've coached him more than most, with the Saxons, he's had a good club seasons with Sale, worked hard off the field to become a good team player and as a consequence I feel confident in giving him the opportunity."
Lancaster will attend Saturday's Super Rugby clash between the Blues and Hurricanes at Eden Park, and will leave it as an optional night out for his players.
Whatever his players see this weekend, their coach says they won't be daunted by what lies ahead: "A lot of the players here have played the All Blacks twice now, and got a good win in 2012. They're looking forward to pitching selves against the best again."
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