After being taken apart in the final test in Hamilton this summer by the All Blacks Stuart Lancaster and the England management seem to think one key factor is fitness. This summer the England and Saxons squad convened at Loughborough University for two days of fitness tests and training.
Prior to the world cup, it has been revealed today, that England will spend a fortnight in Colorado training at altitude to gain peak fitness in time for the World cup on home soil. These two weeks will follow two weeks at their usual training ground at Pennyhill.
Now while conditioning is a component to success is this the only area England need to adjust? Yes, the All Blacks are supremely fit, and this allows them to take teams apart with their uncompromising pace and extensive periods of high intensity pressure, however, New Zealand are also so good because they are able to execute all the basics at lightning speed. Every player, from 1 to 23, can pass off both hands like a top class scrum half. More importantly they are a team of rugby players that can play what is in front of them, any player will fill in at scrum half if the ruck is won to maintain quick ball and pressure on the defence, players spot mismatches and can make the vital decisions while playing at full pace.
More than anything England’s skills and understanding are vital to their continuing success. Their pack is solid and will stand a test for anyone but where they fall short is maximising opportunities and half chances. Having broken through opposition defence, you would always back New Zealand to come away with some points where as with England, while they are becoming more ruthless it is still not a guarantee. An idea of the ability of this All Black team is the comparison between Julian Savea and Jonah Lomu. Savea has reached 25 caps and scored an incredible 26 tries, by the time Lomu had reached that many caps he had only 16. The stat reflects how ruthless the All Black team are at seeing and exploiting opportunities, especially when you consider however good a player Savea is, in his day Lomu was unlike anything before.
One thing we must remember is some of the All Blacks have played alongside each other for years, the centre partnership of Nonu and Smith is tried and tested for many years, whereas England have yet to cement a solid centre partnership. Combinations are forming, the pack is pretty solid but the backline is yet to be fully nailed down. Besides Care at scrum half I’d say few players are guaranteed their place, other than maybe Mike Brown, as all are facing considerable competition. Competition is brilliant and we have options we have lacked for years. At fly half, for example there is genuine competition between Ford, Farrell, Burns and Cipriani, with each offering something different. The team needs time to become a little more fixed.
So although conditioning will make England a far harder team to beat, as they will prove harder to break down in the closing exchanges, a solid, organised defence will still be required or else the fitness is for nothing; this as much as conditioning is what saw the dam break in Hamilton. On top of this every player should have a great skill set and understanding to play what is in front of him.
The few things that cannot be coached are experience and confidence, which means that a player is able to back himself and make the right decisions, partly this comes from England playing together, and Lancaster must pick a team and stick with it as much as possible, barring injury, any obvious failings and overlooking players who suddenly hit the form of their life.
Finally to win a world cup as well as being an excellent team you need world class players. In 2003 England had Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson, to name but a few, all capable of changing the complexion of the game. Sir Ian McGeechan described them as Test match animals, those players, who were completely different beasts in the Test match, who could elevate their game to new levels. England definitely have some top quality players, as well as many promising players that could easily become world class. Billy Vunipola, Christian Wade, Anthony Watson and George Ford, are all special talents. Yet all four will need time, whether they will be truly world class come 2015 we will have to see. As units England have some world class combinations, the engine room of Lawes and Launchbury is powerful, brutal and unrelenting. Danny Care and Mike Brown are exceptional on their day and Chris Robshaw is selfless and unstoppable in the work he gets through. On top of this one of the most potent facets this England team has is a great culture, a real team ethic that the players have bought into making them a strong cohesive unit.
England certainly have the potential to challenge for the world cup with some great players and some potential superstars. While a fitter team will always be harder to beat, if they can nail their defence and really develop a ruthless streak in their reading of the game they could be a real force to be reckoned with.
The question is can they reach that pinnacle come 2015?
What do you think England need to do or change to really challenge in the world cup?