England’s growing belief will have All Blacks on high alert
Can you be the world’s best team but not play the best rugby in the world?
It was an interesting talking point as the dust settled on England’s brutally brilliant 21-16 victory over Six Nations rivals Wales in Cardiff.
This was not England at their dominant and free-flowing best but a 16th successive victory – and 15th since Eddie Jones took charge of the side – suggests they are a step nearer their goal of world domination.
Make no mistake, this was a proper Test match. Two fully committed sides going head-to-head in a thrilling physical contest that is the pick of this year’s Championship clashes so far.
On the face of it, England’s showing is unlikely to strike fear into New Zealand with missed tackles, turnovers and handling errors littering their performance.
However, one key aspect will no doubt cause concern – England’s unrelenting belief.
This England side just refuse to accept defeat.
It is a character trait that the All Blacks will be familiar with having rolled with the punches so often in the past themselves before biting back – but they no longer have exclusivity on arguably the most valuable of attributes.
“We are a gritty team,” said Jones following his side’s nail-biting triumph at the Principality Stadium. “We have got characters in there, who don’t know how to get beaten, and that was evident today.”
England were battered in would we were led to believe would be the all-important breakdown battle – to the tune of eight turnovers – and trailed by five points at half-time.
They edged their way back after the break but were kept at arm’s length by a Wales side desperate to satisfy a vociferous home crowd who would have liked nothing more than to bring an end to England’s winning run.
As the clock ticked down, Wales still held a priceless advantage but if England were feeling the pressure they were not showing it.
They had in fact raised their game, bolstered by the introduction of ‘finishers’ such as Danny Care, James Haskell and Ben Teo’o.
Instead it was Wales who cracked, unable to conjure the composure that would ultimately carry the visitors to victory.
The hosts had spent so much to get their hands on the ball all game only to give it away so cheaply in a costly finale.
The industrious Welsh defence had repelled England for what they had hoped would be the last time and with less than five minutes remaining, their two-point lead was intact and victory was in sight.
The ball was fed back to centre Jonathan Davies who was tasked with clearing his lines but he failed to find touch and instead rifled the ball down the throat of England fly-half George Ford, standing just inside the Welsh half.
There was little sign of fatigue in body or mind as Ford sped forward before finding his creative partner Owen Farrell. Another swift pass found wing Elliot Daly who had too much pace for a tired looking Alex Cuthbert who was unable to prevent the decisive score in the corner.
After a moment of understandable jubilation, Farrell recovered his composure to add the conversion that put the game beyond a now broken Wales.
The dramatic late score – and Wales’ role in their own downfall – will have served as a greater body blow than the impressive hits dished out by the likes of No.8 Ross Moriarty and lock Alun Wyn Jones who had repeatedly rocked their rivals up to that point.
It will have also burned as intensely as Dan Biggar’s lungs did after his goal line interception and length-of-the-field burst midway through the second half was thwarted just in time by the fleet-footed Daly.
It was cruel but compelling.
Victory also enabled Jones to exorcise one of his own ghosts having been axed by Wallabies in the wake of his last appearance at what was then the Millennium Stadium back in 2005.
But unsurprisingly this result was not about the past, it was about the future and how far this England side can go.
“We had a young team out there today which is even more attractive for us going forward,” insisted Jones.
“At stages today it looked like we were going to fade out of the game but we just kept handing in there,” said Jones, as if surprised by his side’s stubborn streak and the resolve he has fostered in a squad brought to its knees by an embarrassing pool stage exit at their own Rugby World Cup.
It is that burgeoning belief that is arguably Jones greatest achievement so far, not the record run of victories, the long-awaited Grand Slam success or the historic series sweep of Australia on their own patch.
“I think the players believe we can be the best team in the world and if you want to be the best, you’ve got to win those games where you’re not absolutely at your best and you’re against an opposition that’s playing well. And we did that.”
Despite England moving top of the Six Nations table with their second win of the Championship, there is clearly room for improvement which does not bode well for their next opponents Italy who are short of form and belief.