Where are England? After a rollercoaster of an autumn, will they be pleased with their work, slightly disappointed, optimistic for the future, a little frustrated? In truth, they should be feeling all of the above.
Before the international programme began, Martin Johnson’s team were set the target of winning 2 games by the RFU. As this would necessarily include a first victory against a Tri-Nations team at Twickenham for 4 years, this seemed a fair, if challenging target. That target has been met. However if you had said after the victory against Australia and then again after the win over Samoa that 2 wins would be the end result, there would have been disappointment all round. So the short and rather unhelpful answer to the question of whether England will be satisfied is: depends on your viewpoint.
The highlight was not just the victory against Australia but the performance which achieved it. It was far beyond the expectations of anyone who has seen England play in the 2 years since Johnson took the reins. Inevitably there was the typically English overreaction (guilty) with media and supporters alike trumpeting the dawn of a new era. Even the players admitted after the Samoa game that it had been tough to keep their feet on the ground.
That showed in the defeat to South Africa when the players were clearly so intent on replicating the all-singing, all-dancing effort against Australia that they were taking wrong options with the wrong kind of ball, throwing kamikaze offloads and generally failed to adapt to the very different challenges confronting them. It was a reminder that this team has a lot to learn.
Johnson, as ever, provided the balanced voice of reason after the South Africa loss. From beneath a brow lined with furrows deeper than the Grand Canyon, he remarked, “This is one game, just as Australia was one game.” No need for any over-reaction, just satisfaction that progress has been made coupled with a healthy awareness that there is still a long way to go. But he was surely right when he added, “the progress of this team is hugely upwards, there is no doubt about that”.
Even after a rare win in Australia and a decent showing against the All Blacks save for the first 20 minutes, the performance against Australia came from nowhere. Confidence, tempo and a clearly discernible gameplan arrived en masse from seemingly nowhere. It was one of those days on which everything you try comes off, as exemplified by Chris Ashton’s length of the pitch try. We saw the emergence of players in Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton, Dan Cole and Ben Foden players who could form the backbone of the team for a decade. We learned that Toby Flood is a fly half of international class, Tom Palmer a more than capable international lock and that the back row unit is going from strength to strength.
However it was so far ahead of where England really are that it is best to regard that match, not as a barometer against which to measure all other England performances but as a tantalising glimpse of a future which could potentially contain great things. To expect England to hit that level every game is unrealistic but just knowing that they are capable of it should be a boon for players, coaches and supporters alike.
The danger is that it becomes a millstone round the team’s neck, a stick with which to beat them when they do not hit those dizzy heights every game. That game can become very instructive however when viewed alongside the South Africa defeat. Against Australia we learned what England are capable of; against South Africa we were able to identify those areas which need to improve.
They were taught a lesson about Test rugby by the Springboks. One of the hardest attributes to achieve as a rugby team is the ability to figure out how to win a game come what may. If things are not going according to plan, believe in your basics and most importantly in each other. You may have turned up wanting to play a running game but you do not need to start throwing miracle offloads on your own 22 when 10 points down with half an hour still on the clock. England have not yet developed the hard core of experience and leadership to achieve this. The challenge during the 6 Nations is to rediscover that hard edge without losing the ability to up the tempo. These are all valuable lessons at this stage and they will be better for the experience.
But here lies the biggest advance England have made and the reason why they can be optimistic for the future. For the first time in years it was actually clear what England are trying to do. There is a discernible gameplan, even if it was sometimes misapplied. Not only that, all the players are buying into it and seem to know what they should be doing at any given moment. Previously England players often looked like they were trying to recall what they were told to do in any given situation in some team meeting during the week. By the time they had figured it out, it was too late. They were also so paralysed by the fear of making an error that they ended up doing nothing at all.
Now they know the shape of the game but have also been liberated by the knowledge that if they try something and it does not come off they will not be vilified. They can therefore operate with conviction, safe in the knowledge that the players around them will react rather than standing there confused that somebody had gone off-script. They also rediscovered, for the first time in ages, the joy that is quick ball. The trick to learn now is to balance the adventurous instincts with the traditional English power game.
It is time then to set ambitious targets. With less that 12 months until the World Cup, progress must be fast. England must aim to win all their home games in the 6 Nations (France, Scotland and Italy) and win one of their away games in either Dublin or Cardiff as a minimum requirement.
After this autumn, we can now say that England have a largely settled team with a core of older leaders and some young guys with the potential to form the spine of a side which could last into the 2015 World Cup, a clear game plan which coaches and players believe in and more than one way in which they can play. You would struggle to have argued that before the autumn internationals. That is progress. There are still some areas which need fine-tuning such as the lineout and the penalty count, and some which need more extensive surgery such as the midfield. They will be frustrated to have lost to South Africa and to have been outplayed. But they end the autumn undoubtedly in credit.
By Stuart Peel | Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images