1. Stick or twist
There must be a part of Stuart Lancaster that wishes fewer of his deputies had played quite so well in the first test. He now faces some delicious (for the fans, anyway) selection dilemmas ahead of this weekend’s game. The Premiership final men return, as do Danny Care and Billy Twelvetrees from injury. The question is, is it fair to leave the returning men – who were in possession of the shirt before – out, given they only missed the first game due to an administration error that had nothing to do with them? It’s impossible to speculate how they might have played had they been selected, but there’s every chance that, against a disjointed and off-the-pace New Zealand, their greater experience could have seen England to a win. So, it is likely those that played so well in the first game – Freddie Burns, Kyle Eastmond, James Haskell, Rob Webber – will lose their place, just another cruel side effect of some suits’ terrible planning.
2. Uncharacteristic mistakes
Referees have such a tough job and nobody enjoys castigating them, but Nigel Owens’ performance with the whistle left a lot to be desired. Normally, Owens is amongst the best referees on the planet, so it was worrying to see him make so many baffling decisions at the weekend. There were two knock-ons that blatantly went backwards, as well as the failure to yellow card a couple of New Zealand players. Marland Yarde’s card was correct – once the penalty was given, it had to be deemed a cynical act in a promising attacking position, but why, then, was an All Black offender not binned for their role in the ruck minutes previously on their own try-line? The debate is not whether it was a penalty or not – you could argue it was actually a maul and NZ should have won a turnover – but once Owens deemed it was a penalty, he had to show a yellow card. Similiarly, Ma’a Nonu was hugely fortunate to avoid a card for tugging James Haskell’s shirt in the first minute. Owens is by no mean to blame for England’s loss, and on another day it could easily have been different, but it is the inconsistency in these decisions that frustrates most.
3. Winging it
Manu Tuilagi’s performance was a brutal exhibition of power. You could tell that the All Blacks were targeting him, as every time he carried the ball there would be at least two men charged with stopping him. While this worked a lot of the time, such are Tuilagi’s abilities that he still managed to break free on a couple of occasions, and one barnstorming break in the second half almost defied belief in the number of men left trailing in his wake. England’s midfield is a claustrophobic area at the moment, however, with Kyle Eastmond impressing inside him and Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell, who performed so well in the Six Nations, available for the second test. Lancaster has admitted that moving Tuilagi to the wing is an option – but it’s not one that England should take. Tuilagi is comfortable in the centre, and it is where he does most of his damage. On the flank, he would have more to worry about as he would doubtless be targeted by the All Blacks’ exemplary kicking game. He is one of England’s only world class attacking options – he should be left well alone to do what he does best.
4. A chance missed
There were a huge amount of positives for England to take from the first test, but you cannot help but feel that they might also have missed their best chance to win a game this series. There was no pressure on them, given the preparation and the fact they were missing so many players, and they were able to go out and play with the freedom that allowed them. More importantly, however, New Zealand will not be that bad again. The had not played together since November, and that really showed – they were disjointed, and made the kind of handling errors you just do not expect from them these days. They certainly did not look like a team that has not lost since 2012. The hairdryer will be out this week, the video tapes will be analysed and analysed again, and you can bet that Steve Hansen won’t allow them to play that badly again. England may have a completely different team next weekend, but expect New Zealand to play like one, too.
5. Changing of the guard
One bad performance does not mean a knee-jerk reaction is required – the All Blacks know this better than anyone, with the consistency of selection they have shown over the past few years – but question marks are perhaps just beginning to be raised about some of the older guard and whether they are truly the best options. Several of their bigger and, it has to be said, older players have not been performing that well in Super Rugby this season, and while putting on the black shirt of their country usually seems to galvanise them, it will be intriguing to see if any changes are made by Steve Hansen for the second test. Richie McCaw won’t be budged, but he was outplayed by Robshaw at the weekend, Aaron Cruden’s lack of game time showed, while Ma’a Nonu had a complete stinker and even the evergreen Conrad Smith looked off the pace until his last minute try. In the front row Tony Woodock is a veteran but was hammered in the scrum by Wilson, and the fact that Kevin Mealamu, aged 35 with 111 caps, is their impact sub at hooker points to a lack of depth there. Hansen is unlikely to change too much, but introducing the likes of Beauden Barrett and Malakai Fekitoa, both of whom have had much better seasons than Cruden or Nonu, to the starting XV might just freshen things up a bit.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images