The rehabilitation of English Rugby Spirit following the 2011 World Cup has been most impressive. The players and Management have been totally united in their desire to expunge the bad memories of a tournament which began with England as a strong contender and finished in disarray on and off the field. To that degree this England group has been successful.
Yet what are we to make of the last 6 months of actual rugby performance as England prepares to face the might of the All Blacks this weekend, who start overwhelming favourites. It is in itself a wonderful challenge for a group of players who are hurting after near misses in their last three major Southern Hemisphere contests, not to diminish the efforts of a valiant Fiji.
Firstly, we know that the best resourced squad in World Rugby – by some distance – is highly competitive. In addition, even though South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have the usual crop of end of season injuries, we ourselves have some crocks of our own – Lawes, Croft, Hartley & Foden would all have been in England’s starting XV and Tom Wood has been out with a long-term injury.
On balance, the games against Australia and South Africa could certainly have gone either way. Robshaw’s last minute decisions have dominated the column inches, and there are general accusations that the team management hasn’t looked after the fine yet important details.
The response from England has been robust, suggesting that it’s just a question of a little more good fortune, as well as accepting a lack of experience – inevitable in a team still finding itself. All fair? Yes, to some extent.
Yet consider these facts – South Africa and Australia are themselves rebuilding and lack experience. Neither team had to play particularly well to win. Australia were creative and smart though lacked confidence and seemed terrified to close out the game, as though they couldn’t believe they were ahead with twenty minutes to go.
South Africa won their game as they had the others, grinding out a result based on defence. Not too many Springboks are proud of the way their team has played, and the first half performance of a fired up side at Ellis Park seems a long time ago.
We all expected England to put down a really strong marker in these autumn games, fresh and fired up, out to prove that the PR and Media love-in was all justified. Even the normally sceptical Rugby press, with one or two exceptions, was caught in the honey trap.
And now, as supporters look back on a very disappointing November, England rugby seems stuck. There are two points to make around that disappointment.
Firstly, the whole group is having to learn along the way so it’s not surprising that they are struggling to make it happen and are making strategic and tactical errors. But we knew all that when Lancaster was appointed by Ian Ritchie and his panel of lieutenants. You can’t suddenly develop a top three team with such an inexperienced coaching staff.
Secondly, England’s lack of attacking strategy remains, more so after the domination of possession against South Africa. England can win the ball, kick goals and make tackles. We have promising runners out wide, and a strong scrummage.
But I remain totally unconvinced as to how England use the ball they win. They don’t know their playmakers and this is proving so damaging, quite painful to watch given the amount of time they have had on the ball in both matches.
England has nothing to lose on Saturday, and their early claim to be a side with no fear will be put to the test now. Any team in white, with their backs to the wall is going to perform with massive pride on their home ground – I used to love occasions like this.
But England will have to construct their way to a win, proving to us all that there are the makings of world class ability on and off the field. Who better to test themselves against than the current World Champions, who may or may not have one last big performance in them before heading to the New Zealand beaches? I can’t wait.