1. Influence waning
The Tuilagi to the wing experiment was by no means a disaster – he was not caught out defensively as many predicted he would be – but the simple fact is that he is England’s best attacking weapon, and his influence was hugely diminished whilst he was out on the flank. He caused New Zealand such problems in the first test, and yet for the first half hour of the game in Dunedin he touched the ball no more than twice, usually when the space had been gobbled up by men inside him. He has better pace than people realise but is not an out-and-out speedster – had the ball bobbled to Jonny May or Anthony Watson just before half time, England would have gone into the break 17-3 ahead. It was an experiment that had the potential to work, but needed to include more moves to get him on the ball more. For now, let’s leave the wingers on the wing and bring Tuilagi back into the centre where he can get involved in the action more.
2. Decision time
Centre seems to have been a position that has caused the England coache headaches since the 2003 World Cup win. It is no different these days, although the issue is at least a positive one rather than merely a dearth of options. Manu Tuilagi’s name should be engraved into the 13 shirt between now and the 2015 World Cup, and the mission now is to find who his best partner is. Eastmond worked well inside him – but we have yet to see both Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell play with him, so it is a shame only one game is left on this tour. Twelvetrees was far from his best in the second test, and time is quickly running out for him to nail down the shirt – he’s had enough opportunities – but he does deserve a chance to play with Tuilagi this weekend, as it’s a combination we’re yet to see. It surely has to be a case, though, of last chance saloon now – Eastmond has shown he can perform there and with Burrell also knocking on the door, not to mention Brad Barritt who showed some nice touches in attack against the Crusaders, Twelvetrees simply has to perform. With little over a year until the World Cup, combinations need to be inked in and partnerships forged.
3. A champion lesson
There are many reasons why New Zealand are the best team in the world, but foremost amongst them is that they take their chances when they arise. In a brutal lesson in how to be clinical, the All Blacks stepped it up several notches in a 25 minute period at the beginning of the second half and took the game out of England’s hands – even a courageous late fightback wasn’t enough to snatch the game from Kiwi paws. It is well publicised that New Zealand often end the game having enjoyed less possession, and kick the ball more than most teams, trusting their defence. They have the confidence that when a chance is presented to them, more often than not they will take it – this is why it was so surprising to see them fumble so much ball in the first test in promising situations. It happened again in the first half last weekend, but in that period after half time they were incisive, accurate and clinical – three things England need to work hard at improving.
4. Plenty still to play for
The series may be over but this weekend’s third test is far from a dead rubber. Nobody expected England to come away with a series win, and to win a game was seen as the best they could hope for – although even that was seen as a long shot by many. So to have come away from the first two tests with a points difference of just minus six, means England can take huge hope into the final test this weekend. A win on New Zealand soil would really announce that they are amongst the top sides in the world. There are also personal battles to relish, with a couple of front line players missing – depending on selection Malakai Fekitoa could line-up opposite Manu Tuilagi, a duel that will be felt far beyond the confines of the stadium. So although the series is already decided, expect this game to be every bit as intense as the two that came before it.
5. Strength in depth
This isn’t strictly related to just the second test, because if you add in the performance of the midweek team this morning against the Crusaders, it would appear that England have more depth in their ranks than for some time. Several of the ‘dirt-trackers’, as midweek players are traditionally known, put in stirling performances this morning to enhance their reputations in the national set-up. Dave Attwood and Ed Slater are the amongst the unluckiest men in world rugby in selection terms, given their talent and the list of names ahead of them in the pecking order, while James Haskell and Matt Kvesic also proved there is life in the back-row battle yet. Lee Dickson is putting pressure on Youngs and Care for the test squad, while Danny Cipriani showed a maturity that must now prove he can be an asset to the squad heading into 2015. Out wide, Ben Foden, Anthony Watson and Alex Goode all showed a clinical nature when chances were presented to them – something that hasn’t always been the case this tour, and will put pressure on the incumbents in the test side. In short, when you add in the injured that have to return and those that have done so well in the two tests so far, you have a pretty healthy-looking future for England.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images