England continue to test the water
Tom Hamilton in Hamilton
June 19, 2014
Geoff Parling has been England's outstanding forward © Getty Images
Rugby works in mysterious ways. At the end of the Aviva Premiership season, the two fly-halves in the England squad for Saturday's game were probably fourth and fifth in the pecking order. Yet here we are two days out from the final Test in Hamilton and both will play a key role in whatever transpires at the Waikato Stadium on Saturday.
The logistical difficulties around that Premiership final have had an increasing influence on this tour and it is something Lancaster never wants a repeat of. "Further down the line hopefully we'll not be in the same situation where I am making decisions on form and fitness with players having staggered ends to the season." That staggered ending is personified in the fly-half selection.
Owen Farrell is out injured, he looks like he needs a break after a relentless schedule and a tough end of season, while Stephen Myler has now fallen behind Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns but largely through no fault of his own. He arrived late on the tour due to the Premiership final and is a victim of circumstance. He now has yet another big season ahead of him to prove to the England staff he is worthy of a place in the World Cup squad.
And that's what this tour boils down to. It is Lancaster and his coaching staff continuing to test the water as they attempt to fast-track a World Cup cycle. In 1999 the England squad did not quite have enough to win the tournament, but that was used as a building block for the competition four years on.
The mass overhaul following the abysmal 2011 World Cup campaign meant Lancaster had to start again. We are seeing the fruits of his work now with a competitive England squad but in his own words, "I still think we are finding out who can really deliver at the highest level".
For now, Cipriani and Burns are the two charged with driving this England team on Saturday and one area they will have to concentrate on is what Lancaster calls the "blue zone". It all comes down to game management and the differing levels between the two sides which Lancaster feels has swung the Test series in New Zealand's favour.
"We kicked too loosely, we gave their backfield too much easy ball. One of the key things that New Zealand thrive on is counter-attacking turn-over ball and attacking off poor kicks."
Burns will have pressure on him to deliver accuracy at the weekend but the full-circle selection of Ben Youngs, Burns and Kyle Eastmond as the 9,10,12 axis suggests they will also have a key role in controlling the tempo. England looked more settled in that regard in the first Test than the second.
For Eastmond, he will be expected to work in tandem with Burns while also unleashing Manu Tuilagi, back in his settled spot in the centres - a partnership Lancaster labelled "our best centre combination from what we have seen in the first and second Tests".
Chris Ashton is back for England © Getty Images
That combination offers something slightly different to the Luther Burrell/ Billy Twelvetrees axis that played throughout the Six Nations but in this Lancaster era, players are having to stay on their toes with team selection no longer predestined. That has been one criticism of previous regimes where players had almost debentures for their position, but Lancaster is not afraid to chop and change.
No one knows that better than Chris Ashton, who last started for England in November 2013, but his end-of-season form sees him back in the mix and the same goes for Geoff Parling. Back in December he had an operation on both of his shoulders and at one stage he found himself on the floor in the hospital toilet sporting a rather unflattering pair of paper pants unable to get himself off the ground. Seven months on and in Lancaster's mind he has been their "outstanding forward" on this tour.
England will now adopt a mentality similar to 2012 when they toured South Africa. Heading into the final Test they were 2-0 down but they rallied to secure a draw. England will be hoping to go one better this time around but will be mindful of what has occurred in the final Test of New Zealand's past two three-Test series. In 2012 they beat Ireland 60-0 and a year later France 24-9. They are handy cautionary tales.
"When I look at the energy that some of the guys who have been waiting to start are going to bring to the table there'll be no doubt we'll be ready for Saturday," Lancaster said. "I'm 100% certain of that.
"Look at Ireland a couple of years ago, France last year...but I can't see us not being ready for the game on Saturday."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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