Confident England must make sure this is just the start

Stuart Peel looks back on a great weekend for England, and ahead to where England must go from here.

Mike Tindall
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

5 thoughts on “Confident England must make sure this is just the start

  1. Couldnt agree more Stu. It’ll be interesting to see how Banahan fairs in the midfield role. Tinds will clearly be thereabouts for the RWC if he stays fit as Johnno does like what he brings on and off the field. There’ll be some reshuffling to do after New Zealand though when the likes of Tinds, probably Moody, Thompson, Shaw & Cueto take a back seat. Frustratingly, it’s great to see them gelling at last, but this is ultimately still a team in transition.

  2. I understand the fans want a more dazzling and illuminating outside centre but the reality at international level is that you build attack on defence and Tindall is the only outside centre we have that has adequate defence for test matches. The likes of Waldouck, Tait and Armitage are far too fragile in this pivotal defensive position. Also, Tindall’s handling inaccuracies are sensationalised, note the inside ball to Cueto for England’s first try, his offload to create Ashton’s blown opportunity against France in the six nations. You also state that he is too slow, but from the example I think you base this judgement on, where England made a break from their 22 on Saturday, he actually did not have the support runners with him so was better served slowing the play down until team members could be in support. Like Nick Heath, I am also interested to see how Banahan goes.

  3. Set against those offloads his 2 on 1 with Moody against NZ and his handling close to the Aussie line in the 2nd half. For every good piece there is at least one poor piece which is not enough at this level. The offload to Cueto was good but not a difficult pass. Any bog standard Championship player should hope to make that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hugely appreciate what Tindall brings to the team and particularly his importance in defence and in keeping the oppo defence honest. But he has significant limitations and we should be able to produce someone who is slightly more the complete package. And if a quick game is the way we are going to play we are going to need him sooner. To me Dan Hipkiss has all the assets if he can stay injury free and not retreat into himself when he puts on the England shirt (which is the same problem Flood had although he is over that now).

    Not at all convinced that Banahan is the answer but I once thought Iain Balshaw was the next Christian Cullen so what do I know.

  4. Something I think we all (including myself) seem to forget is that to create a great team doesn’t necessarily have to involve using the best individual players, but using those who work best as a unit. Tindall is not world class. He is slow, and he lacks creativity in attack – but he seems to gell well with the rest of the team, and he adds experience and leadership in a fairly new and young (no pun intended) backline. IMO, we definitely should be blooding a successor right now – to provide cover incase of injury, but also so that when Tindall does hang up his boots (more than likely after the RWC next year), we are not left in the same position as after the RWC in 2003 (where so many influencial players retired and there was no one ready to take over from them). Whoever is chosen should be brought in gradually as opposed to replacing Tindall immediately – this should hopefully keep the continuity of the team steady and allow for building and developing knowledge and experience. IMO, the possible successors currently avaliable (some are actually wingers/full backs that I feel could be converted into centres) are: Barritt, JSD, Sharples, Banahan, Waldouck, Armitage, Goode, Hipkiss.

    Whoever is chosen, they need to be given plenty of time to develop and not resort to the old chop and change every match if they have a bad game – which is one of the reasons I feel Tait never fully got into the swing of international rugby

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