England’s 2013 began with such promise, entering the Six Nations off the back of the titanic win over New Zealand at the end of the previous year. The first game against Scotland saw the men in white stick to the adventurous style of play that had paid dividends against the All Blacks, but sadly after that the promise shown in these games was not capitalised upon. The rest of the Six Nations campaign saw England revert to type, taking in scrappy wins over Ireland, Italy and France before culminating in that chastening day at Millenium Stadium, when Wales ran amok to snatch the title from English hands.
A summer tour to face a second string Argentina taught us little, while the Autumn campaign was again a mixed bag – the first half against Argentina was the best rugby England had played since the opening game against Scotland, but then they fell away so catastrophically in the second half that it looked for a while a different team was on the pitch. The win against Australia certainly showed progress, given their loss in the same fixture last year, and they again battled valiantly against New Zealand before ultimately succumbing to their superior clinical ability.
The strength in depth developed in the pack this season has been hugely encouraging. In pretty much every position, there are at least two (and sometimes three or four) players who can do at the very least a good job at international level. Loose-head prop, hooker, second row, blindside flanker and number eight are particularly impressive, when you consider that Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling, Tom Johnson (or Croft if not injured) and Ben Morgan are currently all second choice in those positions. That’s three, potentially four, Lions who are not guaranteed a start.
If the forwards have been great this year, the backs have sadly not lived up to that standard. Other than the continued excellence of Mike Brown, there has been little to shout about in terms of English back play. Some positions, such as centre and wing, have been decimated by injury, but there is still a tendency from all the English backs (apart from Manu Tuilagi, when he plays) to crab laterally across the pitch rather than run straight. This starts with Owen Farrell who, for everything that he does excellently (which is a lot, incidentally), still has plenty to work on when it comes to going forward with the ball, and making decisions.
The only other thing worth mentioning here is the slight lack of ambition shown in giving some newer players caps. Certainly in the Argentina game over the autumn there was the opportunity to give the likes of Luther Burrell a go – after all, at some point these players are going to have to be tested to see if they are good enough, and coming off the back of a good win against Australia, to face comfortably the weakest Rugby Championship side, seemed like a good time to do so. The centres remain an issue – Twelvetrees will be given time, but Joel Tomkins is not England’s future at 13.
Player of the year
Mike Brown was was the standout player of the autumn, while at various stages Launchbury, Lawes, T Youngs and Wood have all been excellent. One player, however, has been a pillar of consistency; a bastion of England’s spirit. That man is the captain, Chris Robshaw.
It is easy to overlook Robshaw’s contributions to games, because he rarely does anything that particularly stands out in the memory. But when you actually watch him, it is astonishing to see how hard he works on the pitch. He is consistently the first man charging after kicks, even if they’ve gone out, to prevent a quick line-out, and puts in more tackles than most. His work at the breakdown is also often overlooked by virtue of his being ‘not a real 7’.
Really though, it is his consistency that sets him apart. No other player (barring perhaps Tom Wood, when he has the right number on his back at least) performs at so consistent a level every time he wears an England shirt.
Emerging player of the year
There are frustratingly few contenders for this award. It’s easy to forget that Billy Twelvetrees only made his debut at the beginning of the season, but he spent large parts of the Six Nations on the bench and looked out of sorts this autumn. Marland Yarde looks to have bags of potential but got injured just at the wrong time. This award, then, can only really go to Billy Vunipola – but not just by default.
Vunipola junior’s move to Saracens has certainly benefited him – he seems fitter, and having been forced to play at blindside for a while, his work-rate has improved too. What stands out though is, of course, his ball carrying. On the summer tour to Argentina he was unstoppable, and in the autumn there were several glimpses of what he is capable of. With a rejuvenated Ben Morgan for competition, the future is bright for England at the back of the scrum.
What to expect in 2014
Some new players will be blooded this year. Injuries have opened the door, especially in the backs, and the likes of Christian Wade, Marland Yarde, Henry Trinder and Luther Burrell, if they themselves can stay fit, should all be given a reasonable shot at proving they can cut it at the top level.
Interestingly, a man who has played a bit part role in 2013 could prove crucial to next year. Toby Flood’s future is yet to be resolved, and if, when he makes his mind up in January, he decides to forego his England career with a move to France, it means Lancaster will have to identify a different back-up to Owen Farrell. George Ford, Henry Slade, Freddie Burns and Stephen Myler all have claims to be that man, so it will be fascinating to see which way he goes, if it comes down to it.
Ultimately, I would expect more excellence from the pack and another year – initially, at least – of varying levels of mediocrity in the backs. It takes time to build a coherent back-line and so many of these players are still naive at this level, that they are not likely to be able to reproduce the fluency of the All Blacks and the Wallabies any time soon. A Six Nations win would be a huge bonus; another second place finish might be more realistic. Any kind of positive result on the summer tour to New Zealand would be an incredible confidence boost, but it could be a year too soon.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images