Stuart Peel looks back on a great weekend for England, and ahead to where England must go from here.
Mike Tindall looks as relieved as the rest of us that England finally played some rugby
Well, where to begin? After 3 years of contributing to this blog I had run out of things to say about England. I was boring myself with the same old stuff. And then they go and actually play well.
Not just play well but turn in a performance against the form team in the world which has made the entire rugby universe sit up and take note. What a pleasure to be writing something positive at last.
It was a fantastic performance. Where in the past they have been laboured, they played with tempo; where they have been conservative and inhibited, they were ambitious and confident; where their skill levels have long fallen well below the required standard, here they were accurate and precise; where they had looked like frightened boys, now they played like courageous men; and, learning the more recent lessons, where last week they were frenetic in their attempts to score, here for the most part they were controlled, collected and patient.
Some of the younger players, led by Ben Youngs but including Courtney Lawes, Toby Flood and Chris Ashton arrived as international players and some of the more experienced stagers, particularly Mark Cueto, fed off their exuberance to rediscover their best form.
A couple of caveats though before we all get too excited. First of all, Australia were poor. They never really got going with the significant exception of Kurtley Beale. They missed 21 tackles; Quade Cooper missed twice as many tackles on his own as the entire England team put together. Their supporters have been frustrated for most of the season at their inability to string together consecutive performances and after two strong showings they fell back again. England will not get as many chances as this against a major team very often and arguably should have taken at least two more.
Secondly, England have now lost their biggest weapon from Saturday which was the element of surprise. Australia’s defence was tight because they expected England to play tight. England were therefore able to capitalise on the open spaces left vacant by the defence. Having seen what England can do when they win quick ball, Youngs injects pace into the game and Flood distributes accurately, defences will not make the same mistake again.
So where now for England? How can they ensure they keep moving forward? Martin Johnson may have made changes for the Samoa game but, assuming Riki Flutey is not fit, he will hope to revert to the same team against South Africa. But there are areas in which they could look to kick on. Being able to make changes from a position of strength is a luxury and the selectors should not shirk big decisions (see the selection of Mike Catt in the 2003 World Cup Semi Final). The last cog in the machine which still does not look quite right is the midfield.
Mike Tindall ran at the defence in the second half with a verve and aggression we have not seen for some time. But on more than one occasion he found himself in wide open spaces and looked slow and slightly lost. Added to that his skill level has never been the highest, for all that his physicality is a huge asset. Perhaps it is time for him to stand aside.
When England were wedded to a slow attritional game, Tindall was unquestionably the man for the job. Big, strong, physical centres appear to be the preference of the management but they need to be able to provide other dimensions. Moving Hape to 13 with Flutey at 12 could be an option. Or a recall from the wilderness for Dan Hipkiss who is rediscovering himself at Leicester and has Tindall’s physicality with extra dynamism and pace to add to the mixture.
The factor which one can never really discern from an armchair is what a player contributes to the squad in terms of leadership. England have been short of leadership for some time and are finally building an effective group in that respect. My feeling is that Tindall is an important voice in the squad, being one of only 3 survivors from 2003. He also leads the defence. His removal from the team could leave the backline a little rudderless and the overall balance certainly looked better on Saturday.
But he looked a little out of place in England’s brave new world, slightly uncomfortable in the wide open spaces. Perhaps the answer is to keep him in there but with a succession plan in place and gently ease him out over time with a smooth transition which does not disrupt those around him. We have finally seen the potential that England possess, particularly in the backs. If they are to fully realise it, they need a little more variety at 13 than Tindall can provide.
But this is nitpicking. Johnson and his coaches have rightly come in for significant criticism over the past couple of years. Those of us who have called for changes must now concede that they are moving in the right direction, although I maintain that it should not have taken 2 years to get to this stage. And before we get ahead of ourselves, England will need to beat South Africa and enjoy a strong Six Nations for them to be seen as realistic contenders – there have been isolated good performances before.
But this one felt different, like a coming of age and there is suddenly a feel-good factor around the squad. That can be a powerful stimulant. You can’t put a price on confidence and now, for the first time in over half a decade, England have it. Finally, we can look forward with optimism.
By Stuart Peel