When Australia arrive at Twickenham on Saturday they will be facing a very different England side from the team they outthought and outmanoeuvred 12 months ago. Since then England have gone on to comprehensively beat the All Blacks, they have won a two match test series in Argentina, but most crucially they suffered a chastening defeat to Wales. That game more than any other in the Stuart Lancaster era showed us the areas this group has improve if they are to be taken seriously come the 2015 World Cup.
On that night in Cardiff England were physically dominated by a streetwise Welsh pack, who had clearly done their homework. In the cauldron of the Millennium Stadium Lancaster’s troops lost their composure and wilted under the pressure of the occasion. And while it may have felt like the end of the world at the time, that defeat will probably serve England better than the win over New Zealand.
Physicality, that’s what it came down to. That’s where England’s mind set has to go every time they take the field. They cannot allow themselves to be blown off the park as they were in Cardiff. As a pack they have to go out and physically overwhelm the opposition both collectively and individually for the full 80 minutes. If they can do this they will provide plenty of ammunition for a backline that is starting to look exciting with the additions of Marland Yarde and Joel Tomkins.
The return of Courtney Lawes couldn’t have come at a better time for Lancaster and his coaches. The Northampton lock has had a horrendous run of injuries that have stalled his promising international career. But this season he is injury-free and playing like a man possessed, his 20 tackle performance against the Ospreys was one of the best individual displays of the season. Lawes brings a much needed grunt to the engine room, his power in defence and ability to break the line with ball in hand mean he has to start.
With Geoff Parling set to miss the game with Australia, Lawes looks set to pack down alongside the impressive Joe Launchbury. Launchbury had a fantastic first season in international rugby, regularly topping the tackle count and proving his worth at the breakdown. Having two real workhorses in the second-row, could actually help take some of the pressure of Chris Robshaw. With the amount of work Lawes and Launchbury get through, Robshaw can hopefully focus on sticking closer to the breakdown and getting over the ball.
At number eight the barnstorming Billy Vunipola looks set to make his first start, after coming off the bench on the tour of Argentina. Ben Morgan’s tournament ending injury during the Six Nations was a real hammer-blow to England. They sorely missed his carrying and ability to smash the gainline, and while Tom Wood did an admirable job he couldn’t bring the same power to the game as Morgan. But with Vunipola enjoying a strong start to the season, England now have to powerful, ball carrying number eights.
Saturday will see the start of new chapter for Stuart Lancaster’s England. During his tenure there have been some fantastic performances, but now England are striving for that consistency that makes good teams great. On the summer tour we saw a willingness to play with more attacking intent, but now we have to see a marked step up in physicality and intensity. They can lay a huge marker down at the weekend by doing to Australia what Wales did to them, and smashing them out of the game.