Stuart Lancaster left with a World Cup selection crisis after the wheels fall off England's chariot in Paris

  • England's 25-20 loss to France dredged up serious selection questions
  • Forward coach Graham Rowntree's usually dominant pack was dismantled
  • Just before the half-hour mark England made 54 tackles to France’s four
  • Line-outs and scrums were a disaster with penalties flowing for France
  • Debates have been reopened as to who should be the centres and No 10
  • Lancaster and his assistants must cut eight from the squad by Friday
  • Rugby World Cup: CLICK HERE for all the latest England 2015 news

No wonder Stuart Lancaster looked weary and tense on Saturday night. After years of meticulous planning, the wheels are threatening to come off England’s ‘Sweet Chariot’ just weeks before the World Cup.

It isn’t only the Red Rose scrum that is suddenly going backwards - the same can be said for the whole selection process. The head coach had hoped that this warm-up fixture in the French capital would provide answers, but it merely raised troubling questions.

When the squad returned home on Sunday, the management will have gone straight back to the hotel and the drawing board after this ill-timed ‘kick up the backside’. Problems are stacking up with just 25 days to go until the tournament opener against Fiji in front of an expectant nation.

Chris Robshaw attempts to rally his hapless troops on Saturday night as England are beaten by France

Chris Robshaw attempts to rally his hapless troops on Saturday night as England are beaten by France

France's Wesley Fofana celebrates after France beat England 25-20, a scoreline that flattered the visitors 

France's Wesley Fofana celebrates after France beat England 25-20, a scoreline that flattered the visitors 

Graham Rowntree, who has presided over a sustained period of English forward dominance against all comers, saw his first-choice pack dismantled, just as their understudies were a week earlier. France were imperious up front, with the set piece and breakdown serving as focal points for a rout.

It was staggering to discover that just before the half-hour mark, Lancaster’s men had made 54 tackles to France’s four. Frankly, the home side could have hosted a garden party in their 22 in the first half without any danger of the fine china being broken. 

England didn’t exist as an attacking entity until just before the interval. Captain Chris Robshaw rightly conceded that elements of the first-half performance were ‘shocking’.

Ignore the scoreline, this was a brutal mismatch until France took their foot off English throats in the final quarter during which a rearguard action was inspired by a cavalry charge of hungry replacements led by try-scorer Danny Cipriani, veteran No 8 Nick Easter and the imposing Dave Attwood. 

Usually dominant in the scrum, England have problems to iron out after they were battered by the French

Usually dominant in the scrum, England have problems to iron out after they were battered by the French

Captain Chris Robshaw was correct when he  conceded elements of England's first-half were ‘shocking’

Captain Chris Robshaw was correct when he conceded elements of England's first-half were ‘shocking’

DAMNING STATS FROM PARIS

11 France hookers Guilhem Guirado and Benjamin Kayser saw all 11 line-outs won on their throws

4 England No 8 Billy Vunipola conceded four penalties and nearly got a yellow card

12 England were undisciplined, conceding 12 penalties in the match to France’s eight.

18 France made England pay for their lack of discipline, scoring 18 points from a possible 21 from penalties. France conceded just three kickable penalties, with England scoring two.

4 Line-outs England lost on their own throw, winning nine of 13. Tom Youngs lost three before going off early in the second half.

1 Debutant hooker Jamie George lost his first throw in Test rugby as England’s line-out woes continued.

9 Metres run with the ball by Jonny May in 63 minutes. His replacement Danny Cipriani ran 38 metres in 17. 

But as Lancaster and his assistants enter the biggest week of their careers as selectors - with eight players to be cut by Friday - the evidence of this match actually muddied the waters.

The fact is that as well as having awkward issues about the make-up of their 31-man tournament group, the management now have less conviction about their likely starting XV than a week ago. Stuttering displays by the likes of George Ford and Billy Vunipola have created fresh headaches at fly-half and No 8 respectively, while the first-choice front row endured a meltdown.

Lancaster wants Ford to be the all-singing, all-dancing conductor in England’s No 10 shirt but he was forced to concede that the Bath stand-off had succumbed to ‘one or two errors’, adding: ‘I think he would be the first to accept that some of the basics in the first half we didn’t get right. I thought he was very good in the second half. You can see his quality.’

Despite this supportive stance, Owen Farrell will believe he is firmly back in starting contention.

At No 8, England face a predicament. Ben Morgan is lacking game-time after recovering from a broken ankle while the slimmed-down Vunipola was peripheral in Paris. He didn’t dominate collisions in his normal, explosive manner — aside from one shuddering hit on Bernard Le Roux — and Easter was highly effective in his late cameo, to push himself back into squad contention.

‘There are definitely some decisions to be made,’ admitted Lancaster pointedly.

England's disciplinary problems were translated into points for Frederic Michalak in the first half

England's disciplinary problems were translated into points for Frederic Michalak in the first half

Stuart Lancaster admitted 'there are definitely some decisions to be made’ after the disappointment in Paris

Stuart Lancaster admitted 'there are definitely some decisions to be made’ after the disappointment in Paris

THE BIG COACHING ISSUES

Midfield: Luther Burrell came through his personal audition so is set to claim one of four spots, ahead of Henry Slade, but the starting combination is a concern. Brad Barritt and Jonathan Joseph are thought to be pencilled in but have never played together.

Fly-half: George Ford and Owen Farrell are the top two but the coaches keep mentioning Farrell as a midfield option, despite minimal game-time there. They are facing widespread calls to find room for Danny Cipriani, while Ford’s shaky display in Paris has revived the No 10 debate.

Front row: Alex Corbisiero’s inability to prove he is fit for the World Cup is a blow, while leading props Joe Marler and Dan Cole must recover fast from a scrum ordeal against France. Tom Youngs is the clear first-choice hooker but will be expected to improve his throwing urgently.

Second row: Of all the contenders, George Kruis has been the most convincing and could edge out the more established Dave Attwood. Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and Geoff Parling all need to raise their game after unconvincing warm-up displays.

Back row: James Haskell has done enough to trump Calum Clark and keep pressure on Tom Wood at blindside. The No 8 scenario is a worry, with Billy Vunipola under-powered in Paris and Ben Morgan chronically short of game-time after his broken ankle. Nick Easter is back in the mix.

In midfield, Luther Burrell acquitted himself well to pass his own World Cup trial. On the basis of his strong running and tackling, the Northampton centre is likely to claim the last available midfield place ahead of the unfortunate Henry Slade.

In the aftermath of this one-sided Test, the box-office talking point was Cipriani. Inexplicably held on the bench until the 63rd minute, he came on at full-back to reignite the English challenge. He scored his try with a burst of acceleration which left Yoann Huget - France’s try-scorer - flailing in his wake and created openings with his footwork and well-timed passes. His 17-minute cameo was enough for him to be voted man of the match on the official England Rugby Twitter account.

Yet Lancaster was noticeably measured in his response to the Sale playmaker’s display and despite the popular clamour, the England coaches appear reluctant to rethink the balance of their back-line selections in order to include Cipriani.

His omission would amount to a snub for a game-changing asset. England remain in the market for attacking X factor and he has it in abundance. 

Bath No 10 George Ford had a first-half night to forget on Saturday but improved after the break 

Bath No 10 George Ford had a first-half night to forget on Saturday but improved after the break 

Luther Burrell looks set to claim one of the hard-fought centre spots at the expense of Henry Slade

Luther Burrell looks set to claim one of the hard-fought centre spots at the expense of Henry Slade

Despite his game-changing ability and impact against France, Danny Cipriani is still likely to be snubbed

Despite his game-changing ability and impact against France, Danny Cipriani is still likely to be snubbed

CHRIS FOY PICKS ENGLAND'S PROBABLE WORLD CUP SQUAD

Backs: B Barritt, M Brown, S Burgess, L Burrell, D Care, O Farrell, G Ford, A Goode, J Joseph, J May, J Nowell, A Watson, R Wigglesworth, B Youngs

Forwards: K Brookes, D Cole, J George, J Haskell, G Kruis, J Launchbury, C Lawes, J Marler, B Morgan, G Parling, C Robshaw (capt), B Vunipola, M Vunipola, R Webber, D Wilson, T Wood, T Youngs

For now, with a big training week looming, he will cling to hope. ‘I have done everything I can,’ said Cipriani. ‘There are people who will be first choice and people on the periphery. I would be one of those players. Selection is out of my control. The ball didn’t fall my way last week and I got a bit more my way this week. Hopefully I did enough to put my hand up or maybe prolong the decision.

‘This week people were saying I had run out of time, and that could have been the case. I had to do whatever I could in whatever minutes I had to reaffirm that I can play a bit. I have had a lot of positive messages on Twitter with people saying, “I would like to see you in”. It is nice to see.’

If it came to a vote among public and pundits, Cipriani would be in the squad in a heartbeat. Instead, he will be one of far too many names and issues on the selection agenda. So much for best-laid plans.

 

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