It is a sign of England’s growing maturity that the talk in the gym ahead of their game against New Zealand today has been of ‘Dad Strength’.
By that the players are not referring to who can lift the heaviest weight, but rather who can be practical with their strength; the ability to lift a car to change a tyre, or shift furniture rather than forwards. The reason for the discussion is that Dave Attwood became a father on Tuesday, adding to the baby boom that the team has enjoyed over the past year or so.
Danny Care, Joe Marler and Courtney Lawes have joined Tom Wood in becoming parents and the conversations amongst the team are of nappies rather than nights out.
It demonstrates the fact that Stuart Lancaster’s pups – the kids he threw into the international arena following the 2011 World Cup – are now becoming men.
They are also starting to believe they just might have a chance of winning next year’s World Cup.
Now they have to prove it, starting against the world champions this afternoon. Indeed, this is a pivotal month for England.
On the face of it, they are in an extremely good place. Lancaster and his coaching staff have just been awarded six-year contracts (although no-one is saying what will happen if next year’s World Cup is a disaster), the atmosphere and culture of the squad is better than it has ever been, and they have a pack that has a genuine chance of being the best in the world.
But they still have to prove they are the real deal, and there are concerns about what might happen if they endure a torrid time against the All Blacks, South Africa, Samoa and Australia over the next four weekends.
They pushed New Zealand close in two of their three summer Tests on tour, but with less than a year to go until the World Cup they can’t be ‘plucky losers’ anymore.
“At the moment in some big games – France away in the Six Nations, or at Eden Park in the summer – we are losing in the last two minutes,” says hooker Dylan Hartley, England’s most experienced player with 57 caps.
“The expectation is on us to win but hopefully we have learnt our lessons from those games and can kick on.
“We know we can compete, but we also know why New Zealand are the number one team in the world.”
But can centre partnership Kyle Eastmond and Brad Barritt compete against Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith? Can Semesa Rokoduguni go from serving in Afghanistan as a tank driver to an international class wing in under three years? And can they make up for a lack of time and experience together? England’s starting XV has just 359 caps, while their opponents will have more than 1,000. It adds to the view Lancaster may well be a World Cup winning coach, but that may not be until 2019.
“When you lose 600 or 700 caps’ worth of experience, as we did after 2011, there is no way to accelerate that,” explains Lancaster.
“You have to recognise you will always go into games against New Zealand – a team who have been in their evolution for six or seven years and with continuity – with less caps. It was the same when we played Ireland, Wales and South Africa. We are used to it. Experience is one thing, but delivering on the day is quite another.”
England’s chances of delivering would be helped if they weren’t gripped by yet another injury crisis. They are missing an entire pack, but Lancaster believes it could be a positive if the likes of Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole and Tom Croft return rested ahead of what will be a brutal 12 months.
They could also do with Sam Burgess taking to rugby union like a duck to water as he looks to master the cross code switch in record time before the World Cup.
But until then, Dad strength will have to see England through.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved