Exactly nine years have elapsed since the Rugby World Cup final win of 2003 and Stuart Lancaster's latest team selection underlines just how far England have to go to replicate that feat. A flurry of six changes for Saturday's Test with South Africa not only reflects Lancaster's ongoing search for the perfect blend but betrays the management's frustration at the manner of last Saturday's defeat by Australia.
Four of the "new" faces were widely anticipated with Alex Corbisiero, Tom Wood, Ben Morgan and Mike Brown recalled at the expense of Joe Marler, who is injured, Tom Johnson, Thomas Waldrom and Charlie Sharples respectively.
The left-footed Brown's new role on the left wing is part of England's attempt to be spikier and to improve their territorial kicking game but the elevation of Joe Launchbury and Ben Youngs to the starting XV is equally significant.
Launchbury was a wide-eyed 12-year-old when Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Cup but now finds himself following in the stud marks of the former England captain. Lancaster is not alone in sensing the 21-year-old Wasps lock is about to collect the first of many starting caps. "When you speak to his director of rugby Dai Young, who's coached a lot of good young Welsh players who've become top internationals, he describes him as one of the best he's coached," Lancaster said. "I take that as a strong reference. There's no reason why he shouldn't be an England player for a long time."
Big and rangy with an excellent temperament, the Exeter-born son of a school bursar already knows a bit about South African physicality. Not only did he taste victory over his Springbok opposite number Eben Etzebeth in a memorable Under-20 World Cup contest in 2011 but he also spent a formative few weeks in Port Elizabeth training with the Eastern Province Kings after being released by Harlequins' academy. A relegation-haunted season with Wasps in 2011-12 also toughened him up. "Last year I'd never have predicted I would be here now," he said. "I hope I take the opportunity."
Youngs will have similar feelings after being preferred to Danny Care at scrum-half, not least for his box-kicking ability. With an unsettled weather forecast and the boot of Ruan Pienaar both preying on England minds, Lancaster is banking on Youngs to forge a smooth link with his Leicester club-mate Toby Flood and to make better decisions than was often the case against the Wallabies.
The 23-year-old Youngs concedes his judgment was awry at crucial junctures last weekend – "I got it wrong, I hold my hand up" – but insists he will continue to tap and go whenever he feels the time is right. "I'm an instinctive player. It's the way I play. I won't change it. If I have that knocked out of me I probably won't be the player I want to be. I'll just be another nine who just passes the ball. If it's on I'll go. If it's not I hope to God I get it right!"
Significantly, Lancaster has already spoken to him about playing "in the right areas" and not being penned back for long periods by their powerful visitors. "Our kicking game wasn't as good as it needed to be last week," Lancaster said. "This weekend it has to be top notch. If we keep South Africa out of our 22 that's going to be important for us. Once they get into our 22 they come alive."
Will it work? The best international teams tend to pick the side they think will perform most fluently and score the most tries, which breeds a subtly different mindset. Lancaster would love to have reached that point but, 11 months after taking the job, has not entirely sifted the top-level wheat from the chaff.
"We're still on that journey of learning about players who can and who can't," he said. "Hopefully we'll all still be here in seven or eight years with nothing to talk about because we're still keeping the same side. You'll be saying: 'Is there anyone else?' and I'll be saying: 'Joe Launchbury is still the best.'"
For now the only guarantee is that England will front up more forcibly than they did last week. "If you don't match SA physically you aren't going to win," said Lancaster, having packed the bench with more muscle in the form of Mouritz Botha and James Haskell.
"We don't need one enforcer; we need eight of them. We need all our pack to be on top of their games to win the breakdown battle, the physical battle and the set-piece battle which will be a necessity to win the game. The trick is to make sure you are not so revved up you are a bull in a china shop and can't think clearly. We've got to hit the balance between being absolutely on the edge but also having clarity of mind."
England: Goode (Saracens); Ashton (Saracens), Tuilagi (Leicester), Barritt (Saracens), Brown (Harlequins); Flood (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); Corbisiero (London Irish), T Youngs (Leicester), Cole (Leicester), Launchbury (London Wasps), Parling (Leicester), Wood (Northampton), Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), Morgan (Gloucester).
Replacements: Paice (London Irish), M Vunipola (Saracens), Wilson (Bath), Botha (Saracens), Haskell (London Wasps), Care (Harlequins), Farrell (Saracens), Joseph (London Irish).
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