England have had an interesting Autumn internationals, they look to have stalled in progress, yet still ran the All Blacks close at periods and still beat Australia in a tough array of fixtures against the big Southern Hemisphere trio, who were fresh from the Rugby Championship. So how do England measure up less than a year from the world cup and going forward to this Six Nations, and what questions still remained unanswered?
Going into the Six Nations England are no longer favourites. Ireland have been excellent in their dismantling of South Africa and Australia and show little sign of a team who has lost Brian O’Driscoll. Wales have that Southern Hemisphere scalp they really wanted, Scotland are starting to score tries and make games tough for even the best opposition and France are beginning to gain a bit of consistency. Looking further on many no longer expect England to challenge for the World Cup as strongly as some first thought, but this can be to their benefit. They are an unknown entity. The starting lineup is not certain and nor is their ability to be ruthless in finishing off opportunities against any team. Therefore, in the build up to the world cup the weight of expectation for the home nation is less than it must have been for New Zealand and this means England have the chance to prove a lot of doubters wrong, in 2007 there was degree of uncertainty around the England team that eventually made it to the final, and in the short space of time to prepare, this may be a better comparison than the ones people keep making between 2003 and 2015.
However this raises the clear issue still lingering after the Autumn. What is England’s best team? The simple facts are that our pack has real strength in depth, especially in the second row, and there will always be debate over Tom Wood or James Haskell at Blindside flanker, or Billy Vunipola or Ben Morgan at Number 8, but this just means they will each push each other with the weight of competition. Yet, the forwards have been excellent for the past couple of seasons; it is in the backs that answers still remain. I could only confidently put money on Mike Brown starting at full back. Besides Brown, there is competition between Ben Youngs and Danny Care at 9, Owen Farrell and George Ford at 10 and then the mess of a dilemma in midfield while there is a bit more clarity in the back three after this Autumn.
At Scrum Half I think the starting shirt will go to whoever is on form, since Youngs and Care are both world class when on top of their game. At fly half Ford should start for his attacking threat, although his goal-kicking is not yet of international calibre, the ability to score tries is more valuable. In the back three Anthony Watson and Jonny May have shown some sparks of quality that mean they are the in-form candidates for the starting berths. If Jack Nowell can continue his good form and Marland Yarde rediscover his then competition will become even tighter, but until then May and Watson should start.
Then we come to the centres, I can’t remember a time when this wasn’t a problem for England post 2003. My first issue is Manu Tuilagi, he is by far the most destructive centre Enlgand possess, with his sheer power and ability to break the gainline. However, he has been injured for much of this season and last, he cannot be a certainty for the World Cup and there must be a back up. For this reason the most destructive alternative has to be Luther Burrell, solid in defence and powerful in attack, with a good try-scoring record in his short international career. Alongside him England need a playmaker with a good kicking game to compliment Ford and relieve the pressure from him. A second playmaker also allows England to unsettle defences as they can line up to attack from either side of the ruck or scrum. For this I think Henry Slade should be fast-tracked into the squad, he fulfils all the criteria. He has excellent distribution, has experience playing at 10, 12 and 13, so could interchange with Burrell and he has an enormous left boot meaning he compliments Ford’s right foot as well as providing a long-range goal-kicking option. Slade’s defence is also top draw for his slight frame, and it is the skill Rob Baxter has highlighted that really makes Slade stand out. As a fan of Kyle Eastmond I think he would be an excellent impact substitute, since he does not yet have the kicking game to back up Ford, but his dancing footwork would terrorise tiring defences.
The key is whatever team England choose, they need to stick with it and if it does not work change it and change it quickly. My biggest fear is that they continue with the backline ad bench that beat Australia. Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt do not provide enough invention in the centres to trouble defences. Barritt had a terrific Autumn series, but Tuilagi and Burrell are far more fearsome. Twelvetrees struggled in defence against Australia often creating a terrible dog-leg, while also being ineffective in attack. As for the bench, Farrell, is an excellent player but would have little impact other than to close out a game, which Ford would be more than capable of doing. Therefore, Danny Cipriani should take his place as he provides a spark that could make a game-winning break few others in England can offer.
England have less expectations on them after the Autumn, but have a lot to prove, if the backline is fixed then the power of the pack could really be capitalised on and turn this potentially good team into a truly fearsome one. However, is this all too fanciful for England’s selectors?
What are your expectations of England’s team at the moment, and what would you change before the World Cup?