After two games and two losses against the world’s best sides we take a look at 9 of the things England will have learnt from the international series so far…
1. Owen Farrell is not the man to lead England to a World Cup
For me the Owen Farrell experiment has to be ended, and quickly. There’s no doubting that he’s a solid club player, but the reality is that he is not yet ready to lead a side into top internationals. I feel for him a little as he’s been thrown in against the two best sides against the world despite having very little game time this season, but that does not excuse the performances so far.
The fact his most telling contributions have been as part of a driving maul alongside England’s forwards is possibly the most worrying fact. An international side looking to compete with the best in the world cannot be selecting a 10 based on their ability to defence and kick points. Unfortunately Farrell does not look capable of controlling a game from such a pivotal position and for me needs to be moved aside.
At the very least George Ford needs to be given a genuine chance in the number 10 shirt as 10 – 15 minutes at the end of the game is simply not enough for him. Twice now he has been brought on when England are on the back foot and desperately in need of points, this is not the way to introduce a young fly half to international rugby. I still can’t believe Lancaster hasn’t had another look at Danny Cipriani who offers everything England are currently lacking.
2. Graham Rowntree is England’s most important man
Once again it was England’s pack that kept them within touching distance in both games as the backs failed to offer much at all. The line-out, scrum and driving maul have been England’s most effective offensive weapons, and for that Rowntree must be applauded. During this series all but two of England’s tries have come as a result of either the driving maul or the scrum.
Rowntree has got the tight five in particular performing very effectively. Dylan Hartley’s record at the line-out is sublime whilst for the most part the scrum has been at least on an even-keel, if not on the front foot. This is despite the fact that several first choice players are currently missing throughout the pack. Rowntree has provided a platform for the rest of the side to play-off, now it is up to the likes of Lancaster, Catt and Farrell to build on this.
3. The back row lacks balance
England’s back row have been lauded over the last couple of years, but once again they are coming unstuck at the breakdown. The other area that is becoming an increasing issue is the lack of a regular ball carrying threat in the back row. During the All Blacks game Wood and Robshaw managed a measly 3 metres in territory between them, whilst Jerome Kaino gave his side 36 metres.
With Lancaster’s continued insistence on ignoring Steffon Armitage, I would suggest instead re-introducing James Haskell into the side. If this remains the case then I can’t help but feel he needs to take another look at James Haskell who still offers a fantastic work rate, but also looks like a better ball carrying option. The other factor is that Haskell is one of the most experienced players in the current England side which is certainly no bad thing.
4. England need a finisher
Once again England’s inability to finish off chances has been their downfall in both games. At times they have had incredible amounts of possession and territory but have failed to come away with any points. For that reason Lancaster must find a genuine finisher who can get them over the whitewash and put those points on the board. Half the problem is that the back three aren’t getting much of the ball, but apart from Mike Brown none of them have really gone looking for it.
To me it seems time for Lancaster to look at the Saracens pair of David Strettle and Chris Ashton. The pair may not be everyone’s favourite players but they have proven time and again that they are capable of finishing off chances, and both are more than happy to go looking for work. It’s hardly like any of England’s current wing options have looked solid in defence which has been the main criticism of Strettle and Ashton so why not give them a try, they certainly bring a bit more experience to the side.
5. A kicking coach is a must
This is not a criticism of the kickers ability to get the ball between the sticks, this has never really been in doubt. What I am talking about though is that England’s kicking from hand has been nothing short of shocking, where as the Boks and All Blacks have shown then the value of having a top kicker controlling the ball with the boot. Every time England kick the ball from hand it seems to end landing in an opponents hand, it rarely if ever goes into touch and more often than not loses them territory.
Now obviously this shouldn’t all be down to the 10, it is a burden that should be shared amongst the backs. For this reason a specialist kicking coach is a must if England are to have any hope of genuinely taking on some of the big boys. Ireland proved the importance of having a world-class kicking game last week when they beat the Springboks as Johnny Sexton controlled the game brilliantly putting the ball into the right areas and keeping his side on the front foot.
6. The decision making skills are poor
Driving mauls inside their own half, running the ball out from their own 22 in the rain and passing instead of kicking have all been downfalls in England’s game. Unfortunately there seems to be a lack of a ‘brain’ within the England side who makes a decision on when to kick, when to run and when to try the set play. A lot of this responsibility boils down to the half backs, but throughout the team England need leaders who make those decisions and get the side playing in the right areas of the pitch.
Unfortunately one thing the current England side seem to really lack is experienced leaders who make those kinds of calls. The Springboks have the likes of Jean de Villiers and Schalk Burger whilst the All Blacks can look to players like Conrad Smith and Richie McCaw. There is currently a serious lack of experienced leaders in either the pack of the backs and it’s hard to see where any of them have come from. Perhaps Lancaster was a little too quick to turn his back on some of the ‘old ‘guard’ when taking over?
7. The off-loading game is poor at best
One thing you notice with sides like the All Blacks and the Springboks is the fact they are constantly looking to keep the ball alive. Now obviously you need a certain quality of player in order to play such a style, however it seems every player within Steve Hansen’s side is capable of pulling off an off-load which opens up gaps and allows play to flow, unfortunately England seem to lack in this area of the game.
Now it could be the case that Lancaster and the rest of the coaching team have told their players to keep to a low risk strategy and attempt to retain the ball. The problem with this however is that it kills off options for England and is possibly a large part of why they are currently struggling to score tries. This is an area England now need to spend some time working on in order to provide more options and hopefully score a few more tries from open play.
8. They commit too many men to the breakdown
Time and time again we’ve witnessed England committing four or five players into breakdowns when the opposition have one or two at most. The issue with this is that it is currently severely limiting their options when they win the ball and leaving them exposed when they don’t have the ball.
You only have to look at how the likes of the All Blacks and the Springboks commit one or two men at most in these kinds of circumstances which provides them with options in both attack and defence.England need to spend some time working on their decision making skills and figuring out how many men are actually required in the breakdown.
9. The handling still leaves a lot to be desired for
Twice now England’s game has ended with a knock-on by the men in white. This isn’t exclusive to the final few minutes, but has been a regular feature throughout the international series so far. These knock-ons and dropped balls are costing them dearly and stopping them from building pressure in key areas. In fairness the damp conditions in both games have contributed to this factor, however other sides do not seem to have suffered from the same issues.
Frankly if players aren’t capable of keeping hold of the ball under pressure or in damp conditions then they shouldn’t be playing international rugby. To me there potentially needs to be a couple of changes to reflect this, Ben Morgan for Billy Vunipola is possibly the most obvious, especially given his impact during the game against the Springboks.
What else do you think England will have learnt from the international series so far?