After two wins and two losses from their Autumn International series we take a look at the 12 things England will have learnt ahead of the Six Nations…
1.The tight five is up there with the best in the world
Despite a relatively disappointing series, one thing England fans can feel pleased about is the performance of the pack, and in particular the tight five. It’s easy to forget that the England forwards who took to the field this autumn were shorn of more than a handful of British & Irish Lions yet still managed to go toe-to-toe with the best the world has to offer.
It will be a great boost to Stuart Lancaster and his men that players like David Wilson, Dave Attwood and Joe Marler were able to step in and perform at the same kind of level. This kind of strength in depth will be a huge boost to the side ahead of the World Cup and means the coaching team need not worry should players pick up injuries over the next 10 months.
2.The set piece is England’s greatest strength
Off the back of the tight five’s performance, it seems the scrum and line-out are currently the strongest area in the English game. The accuracy of Dylan Hartley’s line-out throwing was nothing short of outstanding in all four games, and means England’s impressive driving maul has a platform which it can regularly work off.
Whilst there were odd occasions when the scrum looked a little shaky, for the most part it was a potent weapon that led to a number of tries throughout the series. This kind of dominance up front will mean other teams won’t fancy their chances in the tight exchanges, and will ensure England can feel confident of being able to dominate in at least one area of the game.
3.They’re still no nearer to having a clear starting XV
Whilst for the most part the pack picks itself, in the backs there are very few positions where you would feel comfortable staking money on who will start. Mike Brown at full back looks a fair bet, whilst it seems Manu Tuilagi will probably play 13. Beyond that it seems there is still some tough decisions to be made, however Lancaster is running out of time on this front.
The problem is that whilst most of the other tier 1 nations are only debating one or two positions, England are still in a position where six or seven positions are still up for debate. The issue with this clearly is that there is now only a handful of games left before the World Cup in which these preferred combinations can be bedded in.
4.George Ford needs to start in the Six Nations
Ford may not quite have set the international world alight like a minority had been predicting, however he showed enough in his first two starts for England to warrant another chance to stake his claim for the number 10 shirt. His tacticals kicking has to be seen as a real positive for England as it has been an area of real concern in recent weeks.
This isn’t to say that Owen Farrell should be dropped completely, but simply that Lancaster needs to take a serious look at all of his options. In a lot of respects Farrell has been unfortunate that he was thrown in at the deep end despite limited game time this season so was clearly shorn of confidence and match fitness, for this reason he still needs to be given a chance.
5.Inside Centre is the biggest concern right now
Whilst in most positions it’s a toss up between one or two players, at inside centre England have Owen Farrell, Kyle Eastmond, Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell vying for the shirt, with none of them looking particularly ahead of the others right now. With Tuilagi likely to start at 13 Lancaster needs to find a 12 to compliment him and then stick with the pairing throughout the Six Nations.
At the moment either Kyle Eastmond or Luther Burrell should be ahead in the pecking order with the other options either having failed to perform in recent weeks or not offering a point of difference from Tuilagi. Barritt deserves his place in the squad for his stellar defensive work but either Eastmond needs a chance for his skill, or Burrell should finally be given a shot alongside Tuilagi.
6.Robshaw, Morgan and one other should start in the back row
Over the last two games Ben Morgan has done more than enough to guarantee himself a start in the England Number 8 shirt during the Six Nations. Chris Robshaw has also been impressive for England once more making tackle after tackle during games and continuing to grow into the captaincy role. The issue is who should start alongside them.
Tom Wood is currently the obvious choice given his experience alongside Robshaw and Morgan, however there must still be some concern that he is too similar to his captain. Instead now is the time for Lancaster to either take another look at James Haskell at six given his limited game time recently or move Robshaw to six and try a terrier of a seven at openside to see how it affects the balance of the current back row.
7.The kicking game is still dire
Whilst George Ford may have helped significantly improve England’s tactical kicking game in the last couple of weeks, overall it has been a real area of concern for Lancaster. They cannot solely rely on Ford to provide them with kicking relief, instead more of the backs need to step up and develop their own tactical kicking game to give England options.
We’ve seen in recent weeks how the Irish kicking game allowed them to completely nullify the Springboks in Dublin and record an impressive win that relied on clever game management rather than luck. It is one of the areas where the Southern Hemisphere sides continue to outplay England and was best highlighted when the All Blacks went down to 14 but kept the men in white pinned back in their own half.
8.There needs to be more structure to the play
The All Blacks are able to play in a very unstructured way because every single player in their side is capable of passing, off-loading and finding space. Unfortunately England don’t quite have that luxury right now and so cannot continue to try to imitate the All Blacks style of play. Instead they need to bring some structure back to their game as too often the ball isn’t getting to the right players.
Far too often over the last few weeks have we seen England passing the ball out to forwards at first receiver who are stood flat footed before taking contact and not making ground whilst the backs are stood out wide. Instead England need to try and play more through the 9, 10, 12 channels before getting the ball out wide to the likes of May where the real damage can be done.
9.The bench lacks impact
England replacements, particularly in the backs are hardly likely to concern opponents heading into the World Cup. You compare this to the Wallabies who were able to introduce the likes of Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale who are all game changes in their own right. Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell and Marland Yarde are hardly likely to concern opponents in the final 20.
Instead England should be looking to players like Danny Cipriani or Christian Wade to offer impact. Whilst you wouldn’t want an entire bench made up of players like this given their defensive frailties, one or two of them would offer a threat should England be trailing in the final 20 minutes. They could be complemented by someone like Wigglesworth who can help close out a game in the dying minutes.
10.The coaches need to be quicker to react
Particularly in the first two games against New Zealand and South Africa the coaches were very slow to react to some of the issues that seemed obvious to almost everyone else on the pitch. The failure to introduce the likes of Ben Morgan and George Ford earlier in the game seriously hampered England’s chance in the closing stages of the game.
Whilst the Autumn Internationals don’t count for much more than national pride, the coaching staff cannot be so slow to react during the World Cup when they will only get one opportunity. It is these kinds of decisions that can make or break a World Cup campaign so Lancaster has to be prepared to make bold decisions at the right moment or risk watching the game slip away from him again.
11.The lack of ball carriers is still an issue
Other than Ben Morgan England haven’t had one consistent ball carrier throughout the entire international window. Whilst the likes of Robshaw, Attwood and Lawes all chipped in at times, none of them provided a regular threat with ball in hand. You compare that to the likes of Coetzee for South Africa or Kaino for New Zealand and you begin to realise just how important these players are.
For this reason England either need to work on the ball carrying work of players like Tom Wood, or alternatively try our someone like Dave Ewers in the six shirt who has proven time and again he is up to the task. For this reason James Haskell should also be given another opportunity at blindside to see if he can make up for a slightly disappointing outing against Samoa.
12.Several Bath players need looking at again
Whilst it’s a bit early to be talking about calling Sam Burgess up to the full England squad, there are a number of his Bath teammates who certainly deserve another opportunity in an England shirt. The most startling omission in recent weeks has been that of Semesa Rokoduguni given his impressive form in the Premiership so far this season.
Another pair of Bath players who seem to have been criminally overlooked over the last couple of weeks are Kyle Eastmond and in particular Jonathan Joseph. Given England’s issues in the centres it’s hard to believe these two weren’t given an opportunity to play together, especially with the club mate George Ford donning the number 10 shirt.
What else do you think England will have learnt from the Autumn International series?