Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: More tries the aim for Lancaster

Forward game has changed as coach develops the backline, says Salmon

As a former player, pundit and keen observer of England's rugby fortunes, Jamie Salmon has relished the team's changing attitude and style.

That progress has been about expanding the side's ambition, range of tactics and ideas. They were embracing the concept of total rugby with interaction from all 15 players.

"To me that has been the noticeable improvement," the dual All Black and England centre of the 80s said.

After time with Wellington and three All Black tests, Salmon returned to play 12 tests for England where he works in sports marketing and takes a keen interest in the rugby scene.

"Not so long ago we used to win 16 lineouts and drive them all or have 16 back-row moves from scrums," he said.

"England will always produce a decent forward pack. But if you want to challenge at the very top level all the time, you have to develop your backline and the ability to score tries.

"Our tries-per-game ratio was weak and Stuart Lancaster was determined to change that."

He began by shaking up the team culture and getting some victories, and is now looking to take the side to the next level of 15-man rugby.

An average of several tries in each test, conversions and some penalties delivered an average of about 21 points, which gave any team the chance of victory.

In the last two seasons, Salmon has seen a marked improvement in England's intention and ability to score tries and use the width of the ground.

"They look more comfortable with the ball in hand and that desire is led by someone like fullback Mike Brown.

"He can kick but he does not feel shackled to do that, he has the freedom to give it a go if he thinks the opportunity is there.

"He seems to go best when there are 29 players in front of him."

England had players such as Luther Burrell and Billy Twelvetrees who brought an attacking attitude in midfield that allowed England to vary their game and cope with any number of circumstances.

In the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, England had a strong style but it was limited, and when rivals like France or South Africa got sorted they had too much try-scoring heat.

Lancaster and England had to expand their vision and have managed that in the last Six Nations.

This week at Eden Park would be tricky without a number of their test regulars but Salmon said he hoped the new attitude prevailed.

He liked what he had seen from captain Chris Robshaw and how he, the senior players and Lancaster were steering the side.

"Chris has a great workrate, he is getting better all the time, he gets across the gainline and defends very strongly. Tactically he is improving and I think he will come out of this series with lots of credit and learning," Salmon said.

"He is not a red-carpet kind of guy. He has kept a steady profile, he is very level-headed and an outstanding rugby player.

"He may not be the quickest man on the field but he is a fine leader."

When Lancaster settled on Robshaw to lead the squad it was a decision made on a mix of projection and impulse.

At the time the flanker had one cap but he seemed a natural leader on the field.

His peers respected him for his game and he had led Harlequins to success.

"We built a strong leadership group around him and as coaches supported him as best we could," said Lancaster.

"Overall his qualities are: he commands respect for the way he plays the game, he is a doer not a talker, which is probably the best way for captaincy, and he has grown and matured in the role, certainly since I have been in charge."

For Salmon the knotty problems will be balancing the selections throughout the series. The influx of players such as flanker Tom Wood, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell have delivered that choice.

"Stuart is logical, balanced, grounded and a good thinker of the game. Our perception at home is that the players have responded well and he impresses as someone when he talks, who does not beat around the bush," said Salmon.

"This time last year he came out to New Zealand on his volition, to get a feel for rugby in New Zealand. He wanted to sense the culture around the game and the country so it was not alien when he came back this time.

"He's been dealt an average hand on this tour because of the rugby administration, which is astonishing in modern-day rugby. Scheduling has been a problem for far too long."

- NZ Herald

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