This weekend saw both England and New Zealand stutter to victory over difficult opposition ahead of their clash this Saturday.
Whilst neither side looked particularly convincing throughout the entire game, they each strung together a dominant display in one half but struggled to gain a foothold in the other. The similarities don’t end there either; both sides have enjoyed successful years with the All Blacks winning every game so far this year and England losing only one. Despite this though, the two teams still seem World’s apart with the All Blacks being nailed on favourites for their upcoming encounter at Twickenham.
Although England have won all but one of their games so far this year, many of their victories have been less than convincing as Stuart Lancaster and his coaching team have struggled to find a settled starting XV. They have been somewhat hindered so far in the Autumn Internationals having been robbed of centres Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi but even with a fully fit squad Lancaster still doesn’t seem to know his preferred XV.
It is therefore no wonder that England fans head in Saturdays clash somewhat nervous as England could be set to field a very different side to the ones who tore apart the All Blacks this time last year. With so many untried combinations still struggling to click properly it is hard to see England recording a victory over what has to be one of the most consistent All Blacks sides ever.
Having witnessed England’s two less than convincing performances so far this autumn along with the All Blacks stop-start victory over France there seem to be a number of areas England may be able to exploit to their advantage. If they are able to take advantage of these opportunities and match the All Blacks intensity there is no reason why England couldn’t be set for another fantastic afternoon at Rugby HQ.
The All Blacks
First of all, looking at the All Blacks performance on Saturday against a relatively strong, if untried French team, there appear to be a number of areas that England could look to dominate. In particular, although the All Blacks defence can be ferocious in both its speed and power, it did look somewhat vulnerable when the French forwards picked and drove through the centre with pace and accuracy.
Any side that looks to rumble forwards slowly against a team like the All Blacks is always likely to get turned over as they get hit hard and fast. However, with Morgan Parra marshalling his troops from the base of each ruck, the French forwards were able to make significant ground down the middle of the pitch and take the ball right up to the All Blacks try-line. This tactic is particularly effective as the All Blacks like to keep their defence well spread in hope of being able to exploit any potential counter-attacking opportunities.
The breakdown will also be key in this contest with the All Blacks regularly only committing one or two men even to their own. This tactic is employed as they aim to recycle the ball as quickly as possible and spread it out wide. France however managed to successfully disrupt the All Blacks ball on a number of occasions by hitting rucks hard and fast with numbers. This tactic slowed down the Kiwis quick ball and at times even resulted in turnovers.
There are also a number of areas I feel that the England coaching set-up need to look to change in order to maximise their chances of winning this clash. First of all I think Alex Corbisiero has to start at loosehead prop. His introduction to the game against Argentina shored up the English scrum and provided the backs a platform to build from. As the All Blacks scrum is maybe not as dominant as other parts of their game this seems a real opportunity for England to create a platform to play-off. I would therefore start with Corbisiero, Hartley and Cole in the front row.
I also believe retaining the services of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury in the second row is imperative for this game. Although I am a huge fan of Geoff Parling and his line-out prowess I feel the ability of Lawes and Launchbury to play as extra back row forwards will be key to ensuring England are able to compete with the All Blacks intensity and match the work-rate of the likes of Sam Whitelock. I feel even more strongly about this combination having seen the way the line-out functioned on Saturday even with Parling on the bench.
Personally I am not entirely convinced by the current half-back combination of Dickson and Farrell. Although Dickson’s game improved against Argentina I would consider replacing him with Ben Youngs who I feel has better all-round game management and is generally more consistent. I would also like to see Danny Care on the bench again as I feel his pace and quick breaks could exploit some potential gaps in the All Blacks flowing defensive structures.
The problem at 10 for England is simply the lack of genuine contenders. For me Farrell proves on Saturday why he is not an international class 10 with his drifting attacking play allowing Argentina to read England’s attacking play and nullify it on a number of occasions. The issue however is that the other options (Flood and Burns) are either lacking in top-level experience or are out of form. I would therefore stick with Farrell but encourage him to attack the gain line in order to draw defenders otherwise both he and the rest of the England backs will be completely nullified and more than likely turned over.
In the centres Billy Twelvetrees has a much better game against Argentina but still looks a long way from being England’s incumbent number 12 for the World Cup. Ideally it would be nice to see him playing inside of Manu Tuilagi to see what they can achieve together but given the injuries in the centres I would stick with the current Twelvetrees/Tomkins combo. I do however wish Lancaster had given Luther Burrell a run out at the weekend to see what he could of done to Los Pumas. Maybe he would be a better option than Flood on the bench against the All Blacks given that Twelvetrees can cover fly-half?
The wing is my biggest concern for England for two very different reasons. The first is the lack of cutting edge currently being shown with nobody making any serious breaks or even looking like scoring anything more than a sitter out wide. The other concern is the relative defensive efforts, particularly from Ashton. I had personally been quite keen to see Ashton back on the wing for England as his performances seemed to have improved considerably for Saracens, however his efforts so far from England have been very disappointing.
Not only does he seem to be struggling to find scoring opportunities like we have seen him do so often but he continues to insist on stepping inside when defending the wide channels often leaving England exposed on the right wing. Against the All Blacks that kind of defensive display will see England well and truly taken to the cleaners. Whilst I thought Ben Foden had a decent game on the wing I struggle to see him playing there longer term as it is clearly not his natural position.
For me I would start with a Wade/Yarde combo on the wings backed up by Mike Brown at full back. This would shown some genuine attacking intent by Stuart Lancaster with three exciting backs all able to make runs from deep and seemingly able to find space anywhere on the field. Given the All Blacks loose, hit-and-run type tactics I can’t help but feel these three with be afforded the space and opportunities they are likely to thrive in.
On several occasions at the weekend the French were able to counter-attack after turning the ball over and make some serious ground. Can you imagine the likes of Wade in that kind of broken play and the potential damage he might be able to do? Whilst many may point to his defence as a potential weakness can you really claim it is likely to be any worse than what Chris Ashton has displayed so far?
For me the England starting line up would look like this; Corbisiero, Hartley, Cole, Launchbury, Lawes, Wood, Robshaw (c), Vunipola, B. Youngs, Farrell, Yarde, Twelvetrees, Tomkins, Wade, Brown.