As all other home nations prepare for the next crucial couple of weeks, England will feel at least one more game would have been beneficial as they really seemed to hit their stride against New Zealand. I’m surprised a better schedule was not arranged as England would have loved to have tested themselves against a strong South African side much the same as many would have liked to of seen Wales face New Zealand. While we will have to wait a year to see those fixtures we can however reflect on what has been a highly enjoyable campaign for England.
So where are England after their three games? If we start from the beginning with the match against Australia, it was arguably frustrating to watch. The game never really kicked off and England certainly didn’t start until some point into the second half. True could also be said of the way in which England got back into the game. A dodgy decision from the linesman and a fortuitist moment at the lineout led to England drawing level.
Next came another potential moment of controversy as Owen Farrell found a turn of pace to score a rare solo try. It looked as though it might be disallowed due to a block on Moore. However the try was rightfully given as Moore still managed to make contact with Farrell. A good decision unlike the Mike Brown lineout incident earlier.
The momentum swing from these two tries were too much for Australia to come back from and England prevailed to win 20v13.
Now through all the negativity and frustration that came after this performance, the result itself was quite possibly the most important of the three November tests played. I had Australia as favourites before the game, a side that had been together since the Lions tour which in itself had proved tougher opposition than most Lions fans and pundits had expected. True they were coming off the back of a poor Championship campaign but when playing South Africa and New Zealand it is arguable that any other side in the world would be in a similar position.
After battering Argentina away from home and then running New Zealand close in their final match it was clear they were picking up momentum and growing as a side. On the other side of the world England were together as a full squad for the first time since there humiliation at the hands of Wales. A long time to ponder and eager to put things right. They were bound to be rusty, it was impossible not to be.
Hindsight has also been very favourable to the English, since their game against England, Australia thumped Italy away from home and then comfortably beat a spluttering Irish side that many had tipped to beat them. So in reality when performance has been put aside the result was fantastic and made even more important as in two years’ time they will meet once again at Twickenham, except for this time in the group of death at the 2015 World Cup. Mentally the victory has been huge for England, Twickenham needs to be a fortress come 2015 and this was a great start.
Next up came a slightly weakened Argentina side that would have been motivated to avenge two heavy losses on home turf earlier this year albeit a very much second string Argentina. This was a lose/lose scenario for England, expected to win well, but with the potential to slip up. Argentina came with a scrum that had bossed the Kiwi and Ozzie scrum in the Championship.
The first half was very impressive from England, the pack fronting up and through Launchbury scoring a fantastic driving maul that bulldozed the Argentinian pack. The scrum was solid but at times second best on Argentina ball. With a completely changed front row the fact they competed was an impressive feat. Twelvetrees who had a torrid time against Australia manned up and boshed through for a great solo try. Then came Chris Ashton scoring a try that had it gone to the TMO would most likely of been chalked off.
Second half was a ghost of the performance from the first. Argentina really bringing it to the England side. The only positive was England’s defence that repelled Argentina’s advances. Ben Morgan’s solo try rounding off a mixed performance. However England were where they wanted to be going into the last test 2 wins from 2.
Much like anytime the Kiwis turn up at Twickenham the feeling was that it might be a case of damage limitation rather than honest expectations of victory. The England squad however were having none of it and really felt the match was there for the taking. A perfect 2013 campaign and revenge for last autumns record loss was enough motivation for New Zealand though.
They stormed out of the blocks and had England reeling early in the first half and stormed into a 17v3 lead. The biggest victory for England was that they didn’t fold at this point as many would. They didn’t drop their heads and dug deep and managed to find a way to get back into the game through their determined and inspirational pack.
After a quite frankly poor decision from the TMO had looked to of squashed a way back into the game, a powerful scrum from England ended with a karma like stroke of luck that saw Launchbury dive over for the try.
Mid-way through the second half England found themselves 22v20 up with momentum firmly behind them. Despite this, with substitutions that usually were an asset for England became there downfall as Tom Youngs couldn’t find his line outs and Brother Ben Youngs couldn’t find his rhythm. A converted Savea try and a penalty later the game was gone from England.
A valiant effort and easily the best performance from England of the autumn tests. As much as England would have given everything to win I think the loss will benefit them more in the long run. They will have learnt far more in this defeat than in victory last year. What I saw was a far more mature performance than last year and a pack that will be a real force come the World Cup.
So who shone?
The pack will rightfully take most plaudits as they came out on top in all three performances. What will be most satisfying is the front row has genuine world class depth now. Most people including myself would start with the Lions front row of Corbsiero, Youngs and Cole but with Hartley performing extremely well it is arguable he would start ahead of Young’s. It appears to me that both Youngs brothers seem to struggle getting into the game off the bench and that could be a problem worth addressing. Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler give amazing strength in depth in the loose head position and Marler especially has come on leaps and bounds this autumn taking his chance well. Dave Wilson seems like good cover for Cole and stood up well to the Argie’s scrum.
Then comes in my opinion the most dynamic and athletic second row pairing in world rugby. When Launchbury came on the scene last year I had wished for his partner to be Lawes. They have not disappointed. Both carry extremely well and have the added advantage of both being able to play in the back row. Lawes presence in the loose has become nothing short of intimidating. He will soon have his own YouTube channel dedicated to his brutal hits. His two biggest problems of past were his run of injuries and his timing of borderline tackles. Both he seems to of curbed.
The back row has become a balanced system that seems to work. Tom Wood has become the next mad dog with his similar style to Lewis Moody. His commitment and intensity is unrivalled and his leadership qualities clearly assist Captain Chris Robshaw who has matured so much over the last year. His decision to go for the corner when England were 17v3 down was a clear indication and statement of his intent.
Arguably the most impressive performer and weapon England have developed is number 8 Billy Vunipola. A human wrecking ball that has given England a real physicality up front that wasn’t there for the majority of the 6 nations this year. Ben Morgan’s untimely injury earlier this year left England without a recognised number 8 with Tom Wood filling in to make a lightweight back row that struggled to get on the front foot against Italy and got decimated against a powerful Welsh outfit.
It is a breath of fresh air to have the 20 year old bulking down his massive frame at the back of the scrum. His huge runs sucked in two or three defenders at a time and created holes all over the pitch for England to exploit.
Then around the 60 minute mark you had a rampaging Ben Morgan running hard at defences which looked like a massive asset for the England team. These two number 8s are going to be one of England’s best weapons heading into the World Cup. With the likes of Saints Sam Dickinson and Chiefs Dave Ewers waiting in the wings England have great strength in depth here.
In the backs the positives were not as easy to find as in the three matches they rarely found that spark or moment of genius to attract plaudits. Mike Brown at fullback was arguably player of the series. Immense in all three tests he has shown why he should start at fullback as he consistently dealt with high ball and his jinking runs and side steps bedazzled defences. Marland Yarde was a huge loss after looking dangerous against the Ozzie’s. I would have loved to of seen him line up against the Kiwis especially as England did get quick ball on numerous occasions.
Billy Twelvetrees at inside centre had potentially his worst ever game ever against Australia but followed that up with a mostly commanding performance against Argentina and at times looked to test the all blacks defence. Sadly outside of that there was little to write home about regarding the backs.
Which brings me to things that have been found out?
What I can’t wrap my head around is why Lancaster blooded Freddie Burns against Argentina in the summer yet decided to go backwards and not include him at all this autumn with Toby Flood getting yet another chance. I think Flood is a fantastic club player and performs extremely well behind a dominant Tigers pack but when it comes to international duty he has rarely inspired me and struggles when things don’t go the side’s way. Many including myself see Burns as the potential 10 to unlock the backs adventurous side especially considering his relationship with Twelvetrees at 12. I see a very good balance between having Farrell and Burns in the match day squad with both players able to change the game in different ways. So it was a big surprise to me that he didn’t even get the nod against Argentina.
Another issue I have with the selections this autumn was Lancaster deciding to not play the form centre of the season so far. Not only the fans opinion but the words of Lancaster himself, so why on earth did he not pick Luther Burrell after claiming that? Some people would claim Burrell is an inside centre but the attributes for 13 are evident in Burrell and he is a similar mould to Manu Tuilagi.
Instead Joel Tomkins got the nod and was largely ineffective all series. I don’t know how he leapfrogged Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph but England cried out for an exciting 13 but Tomkins only excelled in defence. It got to the point in the Kiwis test that Twelvetrees looked scared to pass to him.
If England have any aspirations to win the grand slam come 6 Nations next year they will need to reboot their 10, 12, 13 channel especially as it seems talisman Manu Tuilagi will be unavailable due to injury.
On the wings Ben Foden was rarely seen and Chris Ashton was lucky to play all three tests. Foden is a world class fullback but struggled to get into the game, largely down to the ball rarely getting past Tomkins. I would love to see England field exciting wingers like Jonny May and Marland Yarde when fit.
On the bench the backs struggled to make any impact with Alex Goode another bad result of having Ben Foden play on the wing. I fail to see why a player like Eastmond can’t make the bench ahead of a player like Goode. Eastmond can cover every single backs position including both scrum half and fly half. It is even open to suggestion that with Eastmond on the bench and Twelvetrees at 12 that there isn’t a need for a specialist fly half on the bench.
So with much expectation and excitement surrounding the upcoming 6 Nations there are definitely changes that need to be made in the backs if England are going to become consistent world beaters. Here’s hoping that Lancaster dares to expand the game.