I was strongly of the view before their summer tour that England could shock the All Blacks in their own back yard. So it was no surprise to see them compete so well in the First Test. I don’t believe there is much difference between England’s strongest and “reserve” teams, and with the All Blacks traditionally being slow starters, there was genuine disappointment in the England camp that they couldn’t put an end to their host’s proud home record.
There is no shortage of belief amongst the England team management and players so to them the second Test was there for the taking. Let’s not forget also that the All Blacks were without their two best players, Read and Carter. For good chunks of the second test England indeed looked dominant and finished strongly, so they take that credit through into the third Test. But this doesn’t change the fact that England were potentially facing a thirty point hiding with ten minutes to go, until a strong scrummage changed the dynamic and paved the way for two late England tries.
I suspect that the England forwards felt aggrieved given their performance, though tellingly their All Blacks counterparts rarely look for dominance up front these days; they roam the field looking for counter attack opportunities. For them, statistical equality does just fine.
Two big issues present themselves, in my opinion, for this England squad.
Stuart Lancaster is right, and stating the obvious, when he bemoans poor “on the ball” decision making especially when compared to the devastating All Blacks. Unfortunately both him and the team are paying the price of the last couple of years when English ambition was severely curtailed by conservative selection and limited ambition. Mike Catt’s influence as backs coach took too long to be implemented, and Brad Barritt as a playmaker, combined with a non ball-playing back row, rendered England’s attack near enough impotent. Worthy defeats and good PR was the constant diet.
Some things haven’t changed down the years. The secret behind Bath’s all conquering back play in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a philosophy of attack and constant rehearsal. It was no mistake that we executed so well and blew away even the most competitive and obdurate opposition. We practised our attack play incessantly and of course, importantly, risked mistakes. The same could be said of England’s double Grand Slam winning team in 1992 which won every game by a clear twenty point margin, in an era when the outcome of every game was uncertain. A modern day comparison exists with the Chiefs – Super Rugby Champions in the last two seasons.
It is irritating to hear criticism from England forwards about loose offloads. My response is, don’t complain – clear it up. England will not win a World Cup by going back to type and picking power plays everywhere. That has been South Africa’s preserve in the past but how good do they look now they have expanded their repertoire? England have to have a mix and match attitude and when it goes wrong to work even harder to resolve the situation.
The good news is that England have time, there are many weeks and months of training and fixtures before the Rugby World Cup. For the first time in a long time England have serious strength in depth and players who can deliver Catt’s attacking philosophy. The likes of Eastmond, Ford, Goode, Foden, Wade, Daly and May would all back themselves and some of them aren’t even on this tour. Our back row competition is similarly blessed (dare I mention Armitage?).
The second and less straightforward issue is the No 10 debate. Whilst Cruden’s game is far from perfect, he plays with great comfort out wide and at pace, as does the prodigiously talented Beauden Barrett. This is a trend started by Dan Carter, now on the comeback trail, and gives the All Blacks an abundance of attacking options. Farrell does not provide England with this extra attacking weapon. This position is critical and represents a huge challenge for the team selectors. While Farrell represents the steel of England’s culture, how different would England look with Cipriani, Burns or Ford starting at 10? Each of them is more closely aligned to Catt’s vision of attack, and provide a wide running option.
If Lancaster and Farrell senior cannot bring themselves to make the change at 10, then perhaps Burrell and Tuilagi should play midfield and we play power rugby to win the World Cup. I don’t believe that would be enough, but, at least there is a clear choice to make now. For those dazzled by the ‘Lancaster Factor’, this tour was always going to be the acid test; player resource is always plentiful for England; it’s how to apply it that counts. One telling point in Dunedin was when Twelvetrees made the cleanest break of the match. A nailed-on score was in prospect, one which possibly could have sealed the match, but where was the support? Nowhere. England must not criticise creativity, instead they must capitalise on it.
If England’s backs want to set the benchmark, they should review the individual contributions of Ben Smith and Willie le Roux in their respective games at the weekend. Sensational in all aspects, they fuelled any number of initiatives for their teams. On current form, they have to be the two most complete three-quarters in world rugby. Let’s aspire to this standard, not step back as some in the media are suggesting – even my former colleague, the maverick Stuart Barnes! There is even a suggestion we base our strategy on the rolling maul – urghh!
England are not that far away – I would suggest possibly within touching distance. But they have to be prepared to risk the ultimate and leave it all out there.
Who do you think should play 10 for England, do you think they have the attack play to win the third Test on Saturday?