Online sport editor Freddie Turner reviews a mildly disappointing set of Autumn Internationals for Stuart Lancaster’s England side and analyses what they have learnt over the past month.
The plucky 26-17 victory against Australia this weekend was perhaps the most important of Stuart Lancaster’s three year tenure as head coach of England. After two narrow defeats to the All Blacks and Springboks earlier on this autumn, questions were beginning to be asked of England’s progress. Thankfully for the Leeds man, his troops delivered and laid down a potentially pivotal psychological marker ahead of the World Cup, which is now less than nine months away.
Here is my take on what this England side have learnt this November:
The strength of this England side is undoubtedly up front. This was showcased during this year’s Six Nations where they proved themselves to be perhaps the strongest in the Northern Hemisphere. However the rugby public were still curious as to how they ranked globally. Could they still dominate against the titans of the Southern Hemisphere? Many believed not, especially after a multitude of injuries to key players such as: Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole and Alex Corbisiero. However, England’s forwards reaffirmed their status amongst the World’s best.
At the set piece they were practically flawless, with both line-out and scrum giving the perfect platform in all four matches. Hooker Dylan Hartley was imperious and but for his characteristically petulant temper and lack of discipline, he would be lauded as one of the best in the world. Lock Courtney Lawes continues to impress and with every bone shattering tackle he is starting to become world-class. Dave Attwood highlighted England’s strength in depth with consistent performances that showed he was a more than capable deputy for Launchbury and Lion Geoff Parling. Indeed strength in depth was a key feature throughout the pack with young front-rows Matt Mullan and Kieran Brookes also impressing.
In the back row, Ben Morgan seized the opportunity afforded to him by a below par Billy Vunipola and showcased his monumental ball carrying ability with three tries in as many games. However, it was captain Chris Robshaw who was England’s standout player throughout the series. His tackle count was outstanding and once again he confounded his critics who say he is not a ‘genuine 7’ with some stellar work at the breakdown. He and his pack gave England at least parity in every game and they completely smashed Australia, an extremely encouraging sign ahead of the World Cup.
George Ford’s performance on Saturday was mightily impressive and has given England’s rugby fans some genuine cause for excitement. The young Bath player stepped up from his role as Owen Farrell’s understudy to offer some much needed direction to the England side. His game management and tactical kicking was superb, whilst he was able to show glimpses of real flair with ball in hand. If his form continues, it will be hard not to give him the no.10 jersey next summer.
The back three:
The wing has proved a major selection headache for Stuart Lancaster throughout his reign. Prior to November, both starting berths were wide open with a glut of candidates to choose from. Lancaster opted for Jonny May and Semesa Rokoduguni ahead of the likes of Marland Yarde, Exeter’s Jack Nowell, and Anthony Watson to name but a few. Injury unfortunately curtailed Rokoduguni’s campaign, with Watson filling his void.
Despite a nervous debut against the Springboks, Watson showcased glimpses of real attacking threat and will have gained some invaluable experience at the highest level. However, it will be the performances of May that will have encouraged Lancaster the most. Previously criticized for his mazy sideways runs and lack of physicality, May dispelled the criticism and justified the faith shown in him by his coach. His try against New Zealand was the best of the series and he followed it up with two more great finishes against Samoa. However the Gloucester speedster was not just good in attack but showed a much more rounded game, with some great work under the high ball and some solid defence. Alongside the ever-dependable and impressive Mike Brown, Lancaster now knows two of his first choice back three.
Another win over Australia:
England have now beaten their Pool A rivals, on four of the last five occasions. This co-incided with a Lions tour win means that these English players are used to beating the Aussies. The pack in particular will feel confident of superiority heading into the crucial pool match next year.
Half back confusion:
England went into the series, relatively confident of their first choice half backs. Danny Care and Owen Farrell had both enjoyed impressive Six Nations and had seemingly cemented their first choice status. However after two poor performances (an especially dire one against South Africa), the pair were dropped for Ben Youngs and the aforementioned George Ford. The replacements impressed but England are now left with a dilemma of who to pick in both positions. Moreover, Owen Farrell’s place kicking appears superior to Ford’s and may well be needed but on current form he cannot be picked. The lack of certainty for Lancaster is an issue.
It is no secret, England continue to have a problem in finding a success midfield combination. Since the World Cup win in 2003, they have tried a staggering 43 different starting combinations, with very limited success. This was once again the case this Autumn, with three different partnerships across the four games. Kyle Eastmond can consider himself unlucky to have been dropped after two decent if unspectacular games outside an out-of-sorts fly half, whilst both Owen Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees failed to impress at 12. Outside them Brad Baritt was typically heroic in defence but his lack of creativity with ball in hand is clear to see. A fit again Manu Tuilagi will bolster England’s options but at the moment England lack any balance in the midfield. Henry Slade anyone? http://exepose.com/henry-slade-for-england/
To win the World Cup, England will have to beat South Africa and New Zealand. They have only beaten the All Blacks once under Lancaster and are yet to beat the Springboks. Despite two more close games, England appear to lack the nouse and cutting edge to beat the best in the World. Psychologically this is becoming a major worry, with continual defeats becoming the norm. Can England catch up in the next nine months?