2013 has highlighted where England are in terms of their development. They are a team capable of a high tempo style, attacking the fringes and utilising powerful centres but a long way off incisive back play. They also have the players to grind out a win on an off day. When compared to their peers though, they can look strangely average and frail, think Wales in Cardiff at the end of the Six Nations and the second half of last weekend’s game against Argentina. Now, a week out from the All Blacks is a good time to ask, what do England need to do to take the next step? What do they need to do to beat the all blacks and South Africa, not necessarily just this weekend, but when it matters?
Rugby can at times be incredibly simple, you need to make your tackles and take your opportunities. Developing that idea further, you need to have a pack that is good enough to win and retain you ball in the loose and backs that can threaten and force the opposition into retreat and score tries. Under Andy Farrell, England have a strong defence, it does however not leave much room for error. They utilise a tight blitz which pressures the half backs and centres, starving the wide men of ball. Timed wrong, as Ashton did against Australia, and the opposition are through. The nature of modern day defensive patterns is that they are so precise a change of personnel can have a massive effect. In part this will be the reason for Lancaster testing his strength and depth; he needs to know that come the World Cup players will step in understand Farrell’s defensive patterns without weakening.
England has a very good young pack, which is more than capable of not just competing but beating the world’s best packs. This is an area where I personally don’t believe we need to concern ourselves too much. As they rack up the test caps they will get better and better. Matt Kvesic should be given game time in the lead up to the World Cup, that gives England more flexibility. With Dylan Hartley and Tom Wood in the pack they can afford to sacrifice Robshaw for a genuine fetcher. That’s not a statement to open up the tired argument over whether Chris Robshaw is a genuine openside. He’s not, but he’s a workhorse and a captain. England doesn’t necessarily need a genuine openside to make the next step up, but they may like the flexibility in the squad come the World Cup.
If I was Stuart Lancaster the backs would be my biggest concern, in particular the attacking play, despite attempting to play a high tempo game through the Six Nations, and through large patches of the autumn, it has left much to be desired. They are capable of it, we saw it against Scotland and boy did we see it against New Zealand but we have not seen a consistent threat. Do England have the personnel? Yes; Kyle Eastmond, Christian wade, Freddie Burns to name a few. So there goes that argument. Is it the selection? Possibly, Ashton is working hard, I can’t fault him for effort but he lacks confidence and has little impact on proceedings. The loss of Barritt and Tuilagi has understandably affected the backs; Twelvetrees though is a fantastic talent. He needs options outside of him, Tuilagi would offer one. In the meantime Tomkins has offered nothing; if Burrell isn’t an option at outside centre then Trinder has been earmarked for higher honours since the U20. Brown and Foden are not wings, there are better wingers out there, but they offer fantastic competition at full back. Pick the form one. It’s not about risky selections, or throwing youth in at the deep end. We have seen evolution in the forwards selection that we have not seen in the backs.
England under Stuart Lancaster has come a long way. It was a team and a union left reeling from the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup. A team was thrown together, under a temporary coach, for the 2012 Six Nations and it continued to develop and evolve from that point. Lancaster deserves massive credit. He is a man consumed with the detail of coaching, who cares as much about the spirit of the team as he does the style. The former P.E teacher has created strength in depth, in the pack especially, that few other England managers have dreamed of. Personal improvement is Lancaster’s obsession; he needs to start demanding that of the rest of the England set up, 40 minutes of excellence isn’t enough.